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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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LYDEN: Ever since there have been puddles of water, human beings have gazed at their reflections. You remember the story of Narcissus and the pond. He saw his own reflection and fell in love. Our need to primp and preen, whether we live in the Bronze Age or the Space Age, can be seen in a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It's called "Vanities: The Art of the Dressing Table."

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LYDEN: Curator Jane Adlin offers a show that reminds us that while our vanity may ultimately be in vain, the instinct goes back a long way.

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LYDEN: The exhibit begins with an inlaid cedar cosmetic box from Egypt's Middle Kingdom. In fact, it was preserved in a Pharaoh's tomb. Found in 1910 by Howard Carter, who would later discover Tutankhamen's tomb, the box is 3,000 years old. Depicted on the drawer is a servant carrying a vessel.

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JANE ADLIN: He was a cupbearer, which was a high title. And it is a presentation piece.

LYDEN: So, you decided to start with something portable. People, we know they wanted to make up, we know they wanted to line their eyes with coal and their lips with rouge and their clavicles with exotic oils but was portable.

ADLIN: Absolutely. And when you think about it, the fact that it was buried in their tombs with them shows how important it was as a means of showing status and their ability to adorn themselves.

LYDEN: Inside the box is a hand mirror, which is made not from glass but of pumiced metal. It has a wooden handle decorated with gold. The Egyptians weren't alone. Through the ages, women have had their cosmetics and must-haves. Curator Jane Adlin said the French called their ornate cosmetic boxes necessaires.

ADLIN: You would find tiny little perfume flasks, combs, nail files, tiny scissors. These are clearly meant for the luxury market and were pieces that could have been owned by Madame de Pompadour or royalty, and were carried by their maids and brought out when the madam would ask for a comb or whatever.

LYDEN: Finally, someone placed the box on a table and drew up a chair.

ADLIN: When portables and tables come together and become the dressing table - and that's sort of late 1700s. And by the mid-1800s, the dressing table has become this sort of extraordinary furniture piece of the beginning of the era of the dressing table.

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LYDEN: Madam de Pompadour was the mistress of Louis XV and a style-setter. A painting shows her at her vanity table with her mirror, her makeup brush and compact, wearing a shockingly low-cut gown. Her preening went on for hours, so she'd receive visitors as she put on her makeup.

ADLIN: She had incredibly good taste, and hired only the most important, the most well-known furniture designers, painters. She was very cultured, and she created amazing furniture. And this table was made for her Chateau Bellevue. And it's impeccably made. The marquetry is fantastic. It's all about her life and who she is and her lifestyle. And so you should notice that on the top of the bronze-gilt mounts of the legs, there are little castle tops representing where she lives, her chateau. And then the top shows all of her interests - her interests in gardening and nature, her interest in music. And this was, obviously, commissioned by her and was to make to show her interests and her likes.

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LYDEN: There are exquisite combs in the exhibit. Some of them are decorated with precious gems, others made out of rubber, and some made out of ebony and ivory. But they were not all used for beauty alone.

ADLIN: The interesting thing about the double-sided combs: the wide tooth is to comb hair, and the narrow end is to comb out the lice.

LYDEN: And what about men? After all, they groom too, especially their beards. So, they need tables of their own. Well, these vanities aren't really tables. Men stood to shave at narrow cabinets with stacks of drawers for their grooming supplies. One glossy modern piece caught my eye.

ADLIN: It's red and it's plastic by Raymond Loewy. The design date is 1969. It was manufactured and he made variations on the theme. But this is the men's shaving stand. And as you see, there's no place to sit. So, he combined sort of the historical idea of men's dressing tables with new contemporary materials, the molded plastic. He has no handles, but the grips on the drawers come out of the molded plastic. And the mirror, again, pops up. When you pull it down, it looks like just one closed cabinet. But in fact it's a men's shaving stand.

LYDEN: What is it, do you think, in the human psyche that we - so many of us - I mean, look at the human history that's shown here in this exhibit - need to look at ourselves, at least for a time, to begin the day?

ADLIN: It is inexplicable, it's innate. It's something in our gene pool...

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ADLIN: ...in our reflecting gene pool. Oh, my God.

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LYDEN: "Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table" is at the Met Museum in New York until April the 13th.

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