The Chiffonier: A Rags-to-Riches Story
Leave it to the French to make a word sound so exotic that its actual meaning come as a surprise.
This is the story of one such piece of furniture with a luxurious name: the chiffonier. A chiffonier (also chiffonnier) is by definition “an ornamental cabinet with drawers or shelves, or a high and narrow chest of drawers.”
This magnificent piece of French furniture, however, has rather humble origins – at least etymologically speaking. The name derives from the French word chiffon meaning “small pieces of cloth, rags of fabric, or off-cuts used in sewing, dress, and quilt-making”. Indeed, it’s the same root for the smooth, sheer, lustrous fabric we know as chiffon – from the French chiffe meaning “cloth or old rag”.
In 18th century Paris, the streets at night were often scoured by chiffonnières or ragpickers, who would collect any salvageable materials such as rags (chiffons), scrap iron, glass, even dead animals and bones, and then sell their finds to brokers across the city. The original purpose of the French chiffonier was therefore to store odds and ends which could not be conveniently stored elsewhere – much like our modern-day junk drawer.
Ironically, set against a backdrop of impoverishment, this piece of furniture made its way into the most affluent and fashionable societies of France and then later Britain. The first recorded use of the chiffonier was in mid-18th century, in 1765. By the end of the century, it was found in almost every upper-class house in France and was used for storing myriad things: fabric, needlework, books, china…
The chiffonier underwent many transformations over the centuries and across borders. While the earlier French versions were highly ornate pieces with curved sides and legs to plain, the Neo-Classical English chiffoniers were less ornate, low, open-shelved cabinets. Later on, the shelves were given grilled doors and an upper shelf with a raised gallery around the sides and back was added. The American version of the chiffonier is a tall, narrow chest of drawers, often with a mirror on top.
Furniture nomenclature is often extremely interesting and intriguing – the chiffonier is one such remarkable example of the fascinating world of cabinetry.