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The Ladies’ Room, a Short History of “Spicy” Boudoirs in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

For a little while now, men have been creating spaces for themselves in the family home to retreat to.  This so-called “man cave” might have a mini bar, a pool table, and probably a big, flat screen TV.  Creating such “caves” has become something of a design trend in the last couple decades. More recently, a similar trend has developed for ladies, the so-called “she shack.”  However, both types of rooms actually have a long and interesting history. For women, the modern “she shack” has traditionally been called the “boudoir.”  They started all the way back in the 17th century when elite families throughout Europe, but especially in France and England, began creating spaces in their homes specifically for women. Privacy became a luxury that men of means could provide for their women.  Today, of course, women can provide for themselves, and the boudoir has become a place where they can indulge in some much deserved “self-care” time.

An Intimate Space: The Boudoir in History

Boudoir is actually a French word with a somewhat sexist meaning.  It comes from the word bouder, which means “to pout” implying that the boudoir was a room in the house that women could retreat to when they were upset and needed some time alone.  Luckily, women fairly early on in the history of the boudoir made the room their own, and its meaning has evolved significantly since then.

Architecturally, the boudoir was usually located just off of the main bedroom, between it and a more generalized living room.  It was originally conceived to be an intimate sitting room where women could meet with their female friends away from the men of the house.  In design, the room was thought of as something between a bedroom, living room, dressing room, and office.  It was usually a fairly small room, and its furniture and decoration were meant to promote a feeling of comfort and intimacy. 

The chaise lounge, a cross between a chair and a bed, is perhaps the most quintessential piece of boudoir furniture.  It is the perfect place to curl up and read a book, take a nap, or talk with friends.   A desk with a mirror for writing or preparing one’s make-up was also an essential piece of boudoir furniture.  On top of it was usually an assemblage of ornate jewellery armoires and a writing compendium, to arrange all of the necessary accoutrements that a lady of good standing needed.

Antique boudoir

Letter writing was the Victorian era’s version of email, and women and men of that era took great care in crafting their correspondences.  And just as today, the design and style of one’s letters, as much as their literary content, mattered.  One way that Victorian era women of means liked to package their letters was within richly decorated envelopes.  For very special occasions, they might even enclose their letters inside envelopes made of silk! So ubiquitous were these decorated envelopes amongst the Victorian upper-classes that the British government actually held a competition in 1840 for the best decorated prepaid envelope design to be used in official government correspondence.

The design and manufacture of other boudoir accessories often involved an equal amount of care and artistry.  Jewellery armoires and boxes were designed and crafted from a variety of materials from silver to fine hard woods and decorated in any number of ways.  Lacquer, a type of preservative paint, was often used to decorate boxes with beautiful flower motifs.  Mother of pearl inlay work was also extremely popular.  This work involved artisans painstakingly carving pieces of abalone shell into various shapes and inlaying them almost mosaic style into wooden armoires, boxes, or furniture.  The results of this work can be stunning, particularly in the right morning light as it bounces off the iridescent abalone shell. 

Lingerie & boudoir

Intimate women’s apparel was also, of course, commonly stored in a woman’s boudoir.  For most of the 19th century, lingerie was still quite plain looking, although sometimes quite elaborate in its construction.  The most expensive corsets, for example, were constructed from the rib bones of whales! By the early 20th century, the so-called Edwardian era, however, lingerie started to come into its own as an occasion for risqué artistry.  Intricate and beautiful patterned lace was often added to it; and instead of plain bleached linen, lingerie could be dyed a variety of colours from classic black to pink and light blue.  Silk was also increasing in fashion for underwear because it was so smooth to the touch.  While in the Victorian era the idea of colouring one’s underclothes, let alone making them from silk, would have been considered scandalous (after all, who was going to see or touch them?), by the turn of the 20th century women had emancipated themselves just enough from strict Victorian codes of modesty that they could dare to decorate and display their undergarments, at least within the safe confines of their boudoir.  

And while maintaining a wholesome reputation was, of course, all important to Victorian women of the 19th century, the boudoir could also be a place where, if a man was lucky, she could invite her favoured suitor for some private entertaining.  Especially in France, the boudoir was undeniably known to be a place where intimacy could occur away from prying eyes. It was, after all, located just next to the bedroom.  Marie Antoinette’s boudoir was famous for being a place where the nobility of France met to lay their hair down.  In an era where formality was often extreme, especially for women, the boudoir provided a much-needed space where, at least for a little while, women could lounge about un-corseted, both literally and figuratively, and surround themselves with beauty and comfort, and perhaps even pleasure. 

Boudoir photography

The boudoir also became a popular setting for photographing the female body.  So-called “boudoir photography” became a genre in its own right during the later half of the 19th century and has continued through the present day.  Pictures of women in their boudoirs could be relatively tame or risqué in the extreme particularly for the times.  In an era when picture taking was usually an occasion for great formality, boudoir photography usually depicted women in a more relaxed manner, for example, simply lounging on their chaise lounge or having tea with friends.  The clothes that women wore in these photographs varied from comfortable summer dresses to lingerie, and even to nothing at all!

Still, in other places and especially later on in the early 20th century, the boudoir’s uses were changed.  In England, it was often used by women for sewing and other home-making activities.   Most English boudoirs, although often decorated following French design trends, were perhaps a bit less risqué than their French counterparts.    

Today, the boudoir can be designed and used by women for almost anything their hearts desire.  Want to put a little yoga and meditation corner in your boudoir? Go ahead! Or perhaps add a walk-in closet!  It can be great fun designing and acquiring all of the accoutrements needed for your own boudoir. Today, as always, the boudoir can change to suit the needs of the women who create and use them. 

Boudoir Furniture

Vintage Gilded Wood 3 Drawers Cabinet. Click here to bu it.

The style of the boudoir furniture changed over time, reflecting changing tastes, but there are also many continuities. Thus, we can speak of a classic Rocco boudoir furniture style from the early 19th to as late as World War II. However, other styles of furniture included French countryside, Bohemian, Art Nouveau, and boudoir furniture pieces. Boudoir furniture pieces were to be at once theatrical, allowing ladies to demonstrate their status and beauty, and also to help her feel comfortable in her private time. While France was hugely influential in the development of the boudoir in England, native styles such as Queen Anne and Regency also influenced boudoir furniture pieces.

Tables and sideboards

A table was always a feature of a boudoir. They had graceful and feminine lines and asymmetrical curves and c-shaped volute legs were the norm. The tables were often highly ornate and floral patterns were most popular and many can be viewed as examples of the Rocco. From the 19h century onwards Chinese and Japanese ornamentation became more popular boudoir furniture pieces. A table for guests refreshments or a side table that was used for storage or decorative objects was also common. These too would have been highly decorated. Tea-tables were often to be seen.

Some of the tables in the boudoir would have had a utilitarian function such as the writing table. Here a lady would sit and write her letters or open her correspondence. The writing tables would have had a central tooled writing insert where letters could be composed. A writing bureau was a feature of many boudoirs which often doubled as an office for many females. Here women would write postcards in 1900

Additionally, many of these ladies’ rooms also had sideboards that were ornately decorated and inlaid with expensive woods and had brass handles. In some boudoirs, books cases could be seen and depending on the tastes of the lady small libraries and boudoir furniture pieces could be found in ornate display cases that were as lavishly decorated as the sideboards with floral motifs and volutes in particular.

Chairs and couches

Perhaps the key piece of furniture in the boudoir was the couch or sofa. This served two purposes, firstly it allowed  lady to rest and relax after a long day or to prepare for an evening of social events. The couch was also where a lady would sit when she received her guests. The legs of the couch would have had volutes and the cushions and upholstery would have been luxurious with elaborate needlework or floral designs. The hues of the couch would have been neutral with white and cream being popular as it was seen as more relaxing.

Another piece of furniture that was commonly found in the boudoir was the chair. These were for guests or for members of the family. While the boudoir was a lady’s private space it was also used for intimate social visits and family interactions. These chairs were upholstered which was often high ornate being decorated with beadwork and other designs. These could be in the Rocco style or Chinoises or Japanese depending on the fashion of the time. The lines of the chairs had to be elegant, and the chair’s legs and back were decorated ornately. In English boudoirs regency style chairs became popular and these are more austere in their lines and decoration. They often had brass decorations such as metal paw feet. In the era before the development of modern heating systems, the fire was central to the room. Fireside chairs became especially popular in the 19th century where a lady or a guest could sit before a blazing fire, or a lady could read a book in comfort.

Boudoir sofas were ubiquitous in the 19th century,  and these were made of mahogany and upholstered. They allowed a lady or her guests to recline in comfort. A divan was often found in many boudoirs especially those of the aristocracy. This is a long couch with heavy upholstery and based on furniture from the Islamic World. The chief difference between a European sofa and an Islamic one, was that the former example’s had legs that were characterized by volutes. Divans  and sofas were used by many ladies to recline while they read. They became popular during the Romantic era but could still be found in boudoirs as late as the 19th century. Another feature of boudoirs was the  Ottoman which adopted out of the European fascination with the Orient. These do not have arms or backs and are upholstered and are very versatile. They could be used for seating, storage or as a foot stool. The furnishings of the boudoir were often covered by coverlets. Divans and Ottomans often were covered by embroidery or beadwork. Plush cushions were often placed on chairs and couches. The boudoir was often decorated in a variety of ways depending on the fashion. One such fashion was the craze for boudoir dolls, which are odd-looking dolls that could be dressed in clothes and often used to decorate a lady’s boudoir.

Later boudoir furniture (late 19th century to WWI)

From the end of the 19th century the boudoir became conflated with the bedroom which would have shocked earlier ladies. Screens became a feature of  these boudoirs. Japanese and Chinese fans and screens also became popular which allowed a lady to dress in privacy even if she had guests. Dressing tables also became an essential part of the later boudoir, and these were often designed based on Rocco examples and had feminine lines and ornately decorated. At these ladies with the help of their maid would have their hair elaborately styled often with floral crowns. The bed was often based on earlier examples,’ and many were four poster beds whose designs originated in 18th century France. Similarly with the wardrobe and these were highly decorated and c-shaped volute legs.

The boudoir and its furnishings are a reflection of the evolving role of women in Europe. It is a good example of the dynamic relationship between furniture and social trends. The boudoir’s furniture was designed to allow women to have a previously unknown degree of privacy and freedom. In this room furnishings continue to this day be influenced by 18th century Rocco style, ornate decoration, and feminine lines.

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