It was many, many years ago. My Mom was preparing for a night out with my father. Great, devoted parents that they were, they still found time to actually have a social life. (It was the swingin’ 70s after all). I, her young, curious daughter, kept her company and hung out in her bedroom as she dressed and put on her makeup. A pretty, sparkly perfume bottle on my Mom’s dresser caught my eye. I looked closer, and that’s when I read the horrifying, repellent words, “eau de toilette”. Eeeeeewwwww!! Toilette??? Sounds like “toilet”!! Eeeewwww. Mommy’s perfume comes from the toilet!!!!! Yucky!
Ok, maybe I was a silly kid. But the word “toilette” (which sounds much nicer spoken than “toilet”) really doesn’t signify anything crude or foul. Quite the contrary. It’s not a bathroom or a plumbing fixture. It’s a common, daily ritual, one that many women – especially we girly, feminine types – take delightful, diligent pleasure in.
So what is “toilette”, besides just another word of French origin that found it’s way into the English lexicon? Well, here it is:
noun [in sing. ] dated
the process of washing oneself, dressing, and attending to one’s appearance : “Emily got up to begin her morning toilette.”
ORIGIN late 17th cent.: French
Simple enough. Of course, some of us women take our beauty regimen quite seriously. Why? Well vanity is the obvious explanation. Another could be that some of us work in a profession where our face and body are looked at and studied intensely for hours on end, and therefore put great effort into maintaining our appearance. Excellent excuse! Um, I mean reason 😉 Or maybe some of us are beauty junkies, and require professional intervention to pull us out of the aisles of Sephora stores and Whole Foods Body section. I, for example, have the number of a “sponsor” stored in my cell phone. I call her with desperate pleas for help, during a relapse, like when I’m testing mascaras and powders and creams and exfoliators and overdosing on fragrance samples and falling into a delirious cosmetic stupor. “I’m at the Clinique counter in Bloomingdale’s!! Code Red!” But it’s Ok. The paramedics come, pound on my chest and give me oxygen until I come to. No problem.
The word “toilette” appears in a lot of painting titles. I’ve come across it countless times when browsing art images. Women, and nude women, in the act of their toilette has clearly been the subject of much fascination for male artists. Hmmm, I wonder why? There’s likely a “voyeurism” element at work. Peering in on a woman’s private time as she cleans and grooms herself. Also, the perception that lovely young women have nothing more substantial to do with their time than beautify themselves might come into play. I don’t mean that in some angry feminist way, honestly. Just offering an analysis based on the different cultural attitudes and views of women from decades past.
The truth is, I love these paintings, especially this one from British painter Arthur Hacker. This is Female Nude at her Toilet, from 1918:
Degas was obsessed with women in varying states of bathing, dressing, and hairbrushing. He LOVED hairbrushing. Many men have told me that they find watching a woman brush her long hair a sexy and appealing sight, even a turn-on.
Traditional toilette takes place at a dressing table, or “vanity”. These days you’d probably have to go to an antique furniture shop to find a good old-fashioned ladies’ dressing table. Being the modern girl that I am, I use the mirror in my bathroom. Not the most charming setting for a work of art, I’m sorry to say.
But Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot took it a step further and brought his rather bewitching model subject outdoors for her toilette. In the woods, under the trees. Why not? Works for me. This is Corot’s La Toilette from 1859:
Many of these toilette paintings feature not only a woman attending to her grooming needs, but hired help assisting her. Wow, now that’s what I call pampering! Check out this toilette scene from Frederic Bazille, year 1870, titled La Toilette. A beautiful painting, but way too much servitude for my taste. Not my style.
I think that the art history significance of these toilette paintings could be that they represent the beginning of “everyday life” as a subject for art. For many years, great art addressed almost exclusively religious and mythological themes. And warfare too. I don’t think it was until the 19th century that artists sought to capture ordinary people engaged in routine, ordinary acts. Women during toilette fits the bill nicely.
From 1883, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Wait. What’s the title? Oh that’s right. La Toilette:
Geez, is everything about hairbrushing? Seems that way. Hairbrushing, staring off into space, looking bored and disconnected. But this next one communicates something different from the previous ones, not just in style, but in the countenance of the subject. She is less passive than the others, and something is going on with her. The scene is almost confrontational. Looks like me and my toilette! I can relate.
From the German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, this is – what else?- La Toilette, from 1912: