Sarah Frater

History of Design

Make-shift Dressing Table, Old Holloway Prison, 1970


Title of Dissertation: British Dressing Tables in the Mid-twentieth Century

Dressing tables can be summarily described as desk-like objects that facilitate the process of getting dressed and undressed, and putting on and taking off make-up. As well as a practical piece of furniture and a decorative object in its own right, in mid- twentieth-century Britain, the dressing table was the place female identity was ritualistically constructed and daily reaffirmed. It was part of becoming a woman, and its absence or disposal broached the unthinkable prospect of un-becoming one. It may explain why even prison inmates created make-shift dressing tables, as John Donat’s photograph of Old Holloway Prison shows. Despite her incarceration, and what must be limited opportunities, the inmate has conjured a dressing table – and all the lyricism of Lady at Her Toilette, of beauty’s optimism and its promise of love, of the adorned and desired female – almost from thin air.

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© John Donat, RIBA Library Photographs Collection, ref 28718