Oh, those lovely dresses Marissa shows us! They make my little larcenous costumer’s heart go pitter-pat. I’m certain any number of nineteenth-century young ladies had a similar reaction when they saw the prints in their favorite women’s magazine. We’ve talked about some of the ways those dresses became reality. But once you had them, what did you do with them when you weren’t wearing them?
The closets we generally take for granted did not exist in the nineteenth century. Oh, there were rooms for storing things, and a wealthy lady might have a dressing room devoted to her gowns and accoutrements. But the hanger (wire or wooden) wasn’t in wide use until the twentieth century, and most closets were not designed to hold hanging clothing. Instead, you or your maid gently folded your gowns into a clothes press.
I must admit, I had these envisioned all wrong. Somehow I had in my mind what my family calls a hope chest—a large cedar box. I’d also thought they might look a bit like a wardrobe ala The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Thank goodness I’ve never written a scene with great detail on the things, because this week I discovered my error.
Here are some examples of clothes presses. This first one is of the low variety, made of mahogany, dating from the early nineteenth century. Inside the center panels are five sliding trays. You pull them out and lay on your dresses. The drawers are for your fripperies like fans, shawls, and gloves.
Then there’s the higher version, also from early in the century. This is also mahogany, with birds eye maple banding. Looks a bit like a wardrobe, doesn’t it?
However, instead of a space to hang things, you’ll find those pull out drawers again.
Some, however, were quite fanciful. Check out this one, inspired by Chinese influences.
Or this one, from 1840. The door panels are inlaid with ebony, and the drawers are lined with oak.
It also actually has places to hang clothes on either side, although they may have been added later, as they are separate pieces from the clothes press.
They are lovely pieces of furniture, but I can’t help wondering how many I would need. As I have confessed before, I am something of a clothes horse. Think my husband would mind building a dressing room to store all my clothes presses? Or maybe a small house?