Feature Furniture: The Dresser

Despite its humble appearance, the origins of today’s dresser are anything but.

Guest Contributor

March 22, 2021

5 min read

You’ve likely owned this iconic piece of furniture at least once in your lifetime. As you read this, there’s probably a dresser nearby, innocuously occupying space in your bedroom, office, kitchen or hallway.

But just where did this item come from? Who thought of it? And why is it so hard to find a decent closet dresser?


Despite its humble appearance, the origins of today’s dresser are anything but.

The earliest use of the word dates back to medieval Europe, where a dresser was used exclusively in the kitchen and dining halls of grand manors or estates. Its original incarnation looked more like a side-table with attached shelving on top. The shelves were meant to store food and the flat counter was used for “dressing” meats on their way to the dining table. Hence the name.

In France, the “dressoir” was also an imposing, high-status symbol. It’s even believed that the number of shelves on a dressoir reflected the owner’s social status. Depending on the family’s good standing, servants would have needed ladders to reach items on the uppermost shelves.

But by the late 18th century, the dresser had become a common household feature. It appeared in more humble residents, now acting not just as a storage space, but as a display case for valued ornaments and pretty dishware. The affluent 18th century city-goer might not have cared much about owning a decorative dresser, but peasants and farmers kept placing their dressers as a focal point of the house.

As dressers continued to be made and used throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, more and more variations evolved. Distinct regional characteristics emerged like in the Scottish Highland Dresser. This dresser included a built-in “porridge drawer” to suit local needs. And across the pond, the dresser took on an entirely new function. Instead of being used to “dress” meats, the American dresser was where we dressed ourselves. It was a space for storing accessories, jewelry, and other beauty products. Later on, mirrors were included, lending the dresser another name: the vanity.

Dressers Today

In the 21st century, a dresser is used for just about anything--from makeshift WFH office desk, to convenient catch-all by the front door, to temporary dining table after a big move. And it's made in just about every design style you can imagine--from minimalist to ornate, from antique to modern, and from country farmhouse to gothic fantasy. Even the materials list has expanded to include metal, leather, plastic, vinyl, and wicker alongside the more traditional oak, pine, walnut, and elm wood.    

In other words, your dresser options have grown exponentially over the last 400 odd years. And if you’re looking for a new model, you have some choices to make.

You might try giving your existing dresser a DIY makeover for a quick (and inexpensive) change. Some paint, new hardware, and new wood staining could mean the difference between simple storage and decorative center-piece. Depending on your level of craftsmanship ability, you can always go full Nick Offerman and build your own dresser for complete customization.

Or, to save on valuable time and effort, you might buy a dresser ready-made and choose from one of the many dresser subcategories like the horizontally- oriented squat chest, a tall vertical chest of drawers (AKA “tallboy” or “lingerie chest”), and the compact closet dresser. But when buying ready-made, you do forfeit a lot of sizing and customizability options.

Or maybe you go the middle route, and buy a dresser custom-made to order. With Baru, you choose the style, size, material, and finish. And whether your dresser is meant for practical storage or beautiful design (or to showcase your upper-class prestige), we ensure the perfect piece.