A Duchess IS a piece of furniture

At a boozy dinner party a while back my friend told me a story about his girlfriend’s duchess. I don’t remember the story, just the joy of hearing the word duchess again.

I am a child of the 1970’s and I had a duchess.  For some reason I now I have a dresser. When did my language change? How did I exchange a lovely evocative word like duchess for dresser. I turn to google.  Even Google seems confused. There is no mention of duchess on Wikipedia.  Am I imagining there was ever a piece of bedroom furniture called a duchess?

I  have to turn to my old actual paper dictionary for satisfaction. My Australian Pocket Oxford (second edition 1978)- duchess: dressing table with pivoting mirror. My Australian Oxford Dictionary (new budget edition 1988) drops the furniture duchess. Ditto my Heinenmann and Macquarie from the 1990’s but to be fair they are student dictionaries.

At least I am not crazy. People did used to call a piece of bedroom furniture with a pivoting mirror, a duchess.  As I remember mine, it had doilies embroidered by my grandmother, powder from Avon, and a jewellery box with a dancing ballerina. It was a shiny veneer or laminate and it matched my wardrobe and bed head. I wish I could find a photo of what it was like but even if I google ‘furniture duchess’ I mostly get pictures of Kate.

17 thoughts on “A Duchess IS a piece of furniture

  1. I know exactly what you mean, being another child of the 1970s as I am. Must be lots of other old words like that too falling into disuse. Do people make or own doilies any more, or at least anyone under 70 years old? Flo

  2. Thank you! I had someone scoff at me today when I used this term and was promptly put in my place by being told that what I was referring to was a dressing table (even though there is no table element to my duchess, consisting of mostly drawers either side of a gimballed mirror). I, too, have doilies on my duchess. 🙂

  3. I went to the antique store recently and asked for a dressing table with a mirror. The lady at the shop, who came across as quite an expert, said “Oh, you mean a duchess!”
    I had never heard the term before, having always referred to it as a dressing table

  4. I didn’t have a duchess but how I wished for one in those days. I had to make do with a chest of drawers with doilies on top on which to rest my brush, comb and mirror set.

  5. I have just come across your discussion, being a mid 40yo Aussie living in England, and trying to remember what a duchess was versus a hutched sideboard (dresser). Thank you for both justifying my memory of the term and clarifying its definition x

  6. My duchess has arrived that I used as a child at my parents home after the passing of my mother, aged 2 days shy of 91 years old, Even up until then she always referred to it as my duchess, even my dad did that same up till he died aged 88. I always wanted to have it after their passing. We always called them duchess’s not dressing tables and I will always refer to them as a duchess not a dressing table

  7. Were you living in Queensland as a child? I think ‘duchess’ is a peculiarly Qld term for a dressing-table, not used in other States. If you were in another State, that would blow the theory, unless, perhaps your parents were Qld-ers.

  8. I am an elderly Kiwi, born in the 40s, and I had a duchess. I wore togs but took a school case to school.

    1. Thanks Julie, my Kiwi partner questioned my use of the word duchess. I like it when he is wrong.

  9. I’ve spent the last half hour with this same conundrum….
    I was almost convinced it was just one of the many strange colloquial words I’ve picked up from my mothers unique vernacular

    This blog posting the ONLY Reference I can even find using Google as a search engine

  10. Many years ago I visited an old fashioned (even then) accommodation place at Coolangatta. While being shown around comment was made about a ‘duchess’. Funny, I thought that I was looking at a dressing table!
    This experience has stayed with me for something over fifty years. The minutiae of life is fascinating. Thank you for your article Kathryn.

  11. I love the name duchess. It’s so much more beautiful than dressing table! I have just recently bought one which was made in 1925 (my very first) and I came across this article while trying to find out what the heck the middle part was used for (mine is a style where the middle bit, between the two columns of drawers, is very close to floor). I still, don’t have the answer, but I do like your article.

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