Seabastian writes about fashion and beautiful occasions, including weddings. He is particularly interested in lace!
Origins of Lace
Lace has long been a treasured decorative element for fashion, especially bridal fashion. Cherished for its delicate workmanship and airy patterns, lace has been worn as an adornment since the 15th Century. This is a look at the history of lace, its origins, different forms, and its use in wedding fashions.
There is some dispute over whether Italy or Flanders can lay claim to the invention of needle lace in the 15th Century. It is certain that bobbin lace was first developed in Italy and Flanders (a region on the border of Belgium and France) at around the same time, though it is not known if one region was the first to develop the technique. Before the late 15th Century, no true lace was created (although there is some speculation that the ancient Romans may have made it).
Decorative trims were created by a system of drawn work, in which threads are removed from a woven cloth to create open patterns, which are then reinforced with embroidery. When the techniques for bobbin and needle lace were created, it was a departure: rather than remove sections from a solid cloth, the open designs were created in a thread over a pattern, and there was no backing fabric.
Needle Lace and Bobbin Lace
The term needle lace generally refers to a fabric with an open design that has been created using a needle and thread over a pattern. The pattern is drawn on a heavy backing, which will be removed at the end, leaving only the open lace.
Bobbin lace refers to lace created by twisting a series of bobbins with thread over a network of pins on a pillow. Once it is finished, the pins are removed, and the beautiful lace is released from the pillow.
Both of these are hand techniques; it was not until the 19th century that machines became widely used to make lace.
Belgian Lace Spreads Beyond Belgium
Since its creation, lace has been held in high esteem. Due to its handcrafted nature, it was very costly to make and thus available only to the clergy and nobility. Lacemaking has a long association with convents, dating back to the 15th century when royal decree mandated that lacemaking techniques be taught in schools and convents in Belgium.
One of the chief appeals of lace over other embellishments such as embroidery was that it was a form of portable wealth which could easily be moved from one garment to another; so important was lace that it was included in trousseaus alongside precious gems, as well as in wills and estates.
The handwork of lacemaking has largely been done by women over history, though men frequently drafted the patterns. Even today, the secrets of handcrafting exquisite lace are held by nuns, particularly in Belgium, who have retained their skills despite the rise of machine-made lace.
By the 16th century, lacemaking had spread beyond its origins in Belgium/Flanders and Italy. As demand grew beyond the Catholic Church, the art of lacemaking was established in virtually every European nation. Despite that, certain centers of lace creation were established, first in Venice, Italy, then in the Flanders/Belgium region, and then in France. The nobility desperately craved lace during the Renaissance as a way to showcase their immense wealth, appreciation for beauty, and their sense of style.
Venise Lace of Venice Favorite of French King Louis XIV
One of the first recognized styles of lace was Gros Point de Venise, a needle lace created in 17th-century Venice. Venise lace was a favorite of the aristocracy and was known for its heavy Baroque floral and scroll motifs. The edges of the designs were emphasized by a padded stitch which created a slightly three-dimensional effect (it has been said that Venise lace resembles ivory carving or bas-relief).
This rich and beautiful lace was a particular favorite of the royals, especially French King Louis XIV, the Sun King. Although lace has come to be considered a feminine adornment, it was originally equally revered by men of wealth and status. In the 1670s, the prestige of Venise lace made Venice one of the premier lacemaking regions, but as the style began to be reliably copied elsewhere, the lace industry declined in Venice.
The popularity of lace among royal courts continued unabated into the 18th century. It was used primarily as movable accents such as cuffs, collars, and ruffs. The general climate of the early 18th century was one in which luxury and frivolity were prized, and lace was the perfect expressive element for the aristocracy's desire to "one up" each other.
People were so crazed for lace that lands were sold, and fortunes squandered just to acquire more pieces. The high cost of handmade needle and bobbin lace was due to the painstaking effort that went into creating even the tiniest bit of it; a 1" section could take a woman two hours to create. So exacting was the craft that lacemakers went blind from the countless hours spent working tiny threads into intricate patterns.
Alencon and Chantilly Lace
Alencon Lace and Chantilly Lace Become Popular
The French lacemaking industry was founded in the late 17th century in response to the intense demand for lace among the lavish French courts. Louis XIV's finance minister became so alarmed at all of the money flowing out of France to buy lace that he started a domestic lacemaking center in Alençon in Normandy.
Most laces were named after their town of origin, and Alençon lace is one of the most popular forms of lace on the market today, especially for bridal gowns. The lace was characterized by its floral motifs which were created on a light mesh ground. Re-embroidered Alençon features a heavier stitch which is used to outline the flowers and add depth.
Many other famous laces were designed in France, including Chantilly, Lyons, Calais, and Valenciennes, but the French Revolution dealt a nearly fatal blow to the French lacemaking industry. At the time of the Revolution in 1789, the passion for all things expensive and exquisite was instantly ended. Lace was too much associated with the careless extravagance of the aristocracy, some of whom were losing their famously coiffed heads at the guillotine.
Indeed, some of the craftspeople who made the lace were also executed for their service to the now-despised nobility. The sudden lack of demand, as well as the risk of personal injury, made lacemaking a very undesirable profession around the time of the French Revolution.
Belgium Still Famous for Handmade Lace
One place where the lace industry never died out was Belgium. This was largely due to the method used to create fine Belgian lace: each worker was responsible for a specific portion of a larger whole. This meant that no one person was skilled in creating the entire finished piece, which made the secrets of Belgian lace much harder to spread to other regions. Today, Belgium is one of the few places in the world known for its fine lace.
Machine-Made Lace Makes Lace Less Rare
By the 19th century, machine-made lace was being produced. This greatly diminished the value of lace as a status symbol for the aristocracy. Once lace was more widely available, it was no longer as precious, nor as rare.
It was, however, embraced by the middle classes, who were delighted to have access to beautiful laces for their trousseaus, wedding attire, collars, and cuffs. Fabulous lace gowns were created by 19th-century couturiers such as Worth of Paris. Though no longer exclusive, lace became extremely popular.
Queen Victoria's Bridal Lace
There was one thing that sealed the place of lace in history, which was the wedding of Queen Victoria in 1840. She created a lasting tradition when she chose to wear a white wedding gown rather than a typical royal silver one. Queen Victoria's bridal gown was trimmed in exquisite Honiton lace, and she wore a breathtaking veil of Honiton lace adorned with orange blossoms.
In fact, it is said that the Queen chose a white wedding gown over a silver one because she was enamored with the rich lace and wanted it on her bridal attire. As with many of her wedding customs, once the world got a look at the engravings of Queen Victoria in her lace veil, it instantly became the standard to which all future brides would adhere
Lace Veils and Lace Bridal Gowns
Lace veils and lace bridal gowns became an enduring favorite for brides in the Victorian era and beyond. Families would purchase the best lace veil they could afford, which became a treasured heirloom to be passed down through future generations.
From Renaissance times, fine handwork was considered one of the few appropriate pastimes for elegant ladies, and young women spent years creating the lace-trimmed goods that were to make up their wedding trousseaus. By the 19th century, less laborious techniques for creating handcrafted lace had been invented, such as Irish lace (technically a very fine crochet), which allowed middle-class Victorian ladies to make these special pieces with greater ease.
A passion for lace continued into the 20th century. Throughout the Edwardian and Belle Epoque periods, society women indulged their love of the finer things in life, including garments trimmed with elaborate lace. High lace collars and blouses with cascades of lace were part of the everyday wardrobe for a wealthy society matron in the early 20th century. For the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, money was no object when it came to fashion, any more than it was for the members of the royal courts of the Renaissance.
By the 1920s, styles had been considerably simplified. There was one time when every woman, no matter how modern, wanted to wear lace, and that was on her wedding day. The boxy tea length shift dresses worn by 1920s brides were accented by voluminous veils of the finest Belgian lace. The veils were created in a Point de Gaze, which was a Belgian lace which had a very light effect. Roses, scrolls, and ribbons were created on a fine net, which made the lace soft and flowing. Brides in the 1920s offset the boyish nature of their short hair and shapeless dresses with feminine lace veils, often made from yards and yards of the precious material.
Hollywood and Designers Adopt Lace
The glamorous Hollywood styles of the 1930s called for less ornamentation, but lace did make an appearance on bridal gowns in limited applications. Delicate lace ruffles around necklines or lace panels inset into slinky satin added romantic touches to the bride's attire. Lace was less evident on new veils, although family heirlooms of handmade Belgian lace were still worn if they were a part of the bridal trousseau. As Coco Chanel wrote:
unlike many other precious objects which, owing to industrial progress, have lost much of their luxurious quality, lace, adapting itself to the economic and industrial requirements of our age, has kept its main characteristics: precious elegance, lightness and luxury.
World War II halted lace production in Europe. The austere conditions created by war would have made the idea of costly imported adornments out of the question, even had the factories remained open. Following the end of the war and the reemergence of the European fashion industry, lace once again gained its place as the pinnacle of high style.
The women of the 1950s (for by this time, lace was definitely seen as strictly feminine) loved lace—the more, the better. One only need look at one of the era's most popular songs to see the important place that lace held: "Chantilly Lace".
Chantilly lace was indeed one of the most popular varieties of lace in the first half of the 50s. It is a light lace with an all-over floral pattern which is often used as whole cloth. Chantilly, and similar laces like Lyon and Calais, were immensely popular for wedding gowns. The craze was set off both by the new availability of luxury materials following WWII and by Hollywood.
In the 1950 film Father of the Bride, Elizabeth Taylor wore a satin and Chantilly lace bridal gown that immediately became the style that every bride tried to emulate. The iconic dress was designed by costume designer Helen Rose, who would go on to create another important 1950s wedding gown, that of Grace Kelly in 1956.
Grace Kelly Wedding Gown Sets Bridal Gown Style
Lace was used in many ways throughout the 50s. It was used as insets on the bodices of satin gowns. Dresses were created entirely out of Chantilly lace, with skirts of many lacy tiers using up to 80 yards of lace (of course, by then, mass production had brought the price down considerably).
As the decade wore on, stiffer gowns became the fashion, especially ones inspired by the gown of Grace Kelly, whose wedding attire was estimated to have required 300 yards of the finest Valenciennes lace. She not only wore a gown with lace but an exquisite lace veil that featured an estimated 1000 pearls. American brides rushed to find bridal gowns which were styled like the one worn by the new Princess of Monaco.
This ushered in demand for heavier laces, especially Alençon, which was frequently used as an applique rather than as whole cloth. Alençon lace was clipped apart and carefully stitched to background fabrics; matching lace trims were used to decorate the edges of the bridal veils. This technique was in large part what made the Priscilla of Boston gowns famous. Priscilla Kidder was known for her expertly crafted wedding gowns created from Alençon lace which had been painstakingly appliqued (often after being hand-beaded with pearls and crystals) onto fine English net.
Venise Lace Still Popular
By the 1960s, the nipped-in waist and full skirt of the 1950s had given way to much simpler A-line shifts, but brides still craved lace. Venise lace, one of the original types, came back into fashion, as the heavy lace was a good match for the stiffer fabrics of the day. The lace was not used as whole cloth but as an applique or a narrow trim along an Empire waistline. Lace was still a widely admired bridal fabric in the 1970s, though much of it was very poor quality lace such as Schiffli, which is sometimes called "tablecloth lace".
Some lace is still produced in Europe, especially Belgium, but much of the world's machine-made lace comes from Asia or New Jersey. Many of these laces, particularly the domestic ones, retain the originals' beautiful designs and fine workmanship. The beauty of lace had ensured that its popularity in wedding gowns remains constant.
Through the excessive styles of the 1980s, as inspired by Princess Diana's gown, through the 1990s, and into the present day, brides have continued their love affair with lace. Alençon lace is the current favorite lace, whether used as an applique or in one continuous piece. No matter what trends come and go, it is a certainty that the luxury and romance of lace will secure its place as one of the most cherished embellishments of all time.
Sources and Further Reading
- Lace: A Sumptuous History | SFO Museum
Lace, a decorative openwork web, was first developed in Europe during the sixteenth century. Two distinct types of lace making—needle lace and bobbin lace—began simultaneously.
- Jackson, Emily. (1900). A History of Hand-made Lace. Scribner's Sons.
- needle lace | Fashion History Timeline
Needle lace requires the use of a single thread and a needle to make stitches one after another which gradually build up a fabric.
- What is Bobbin lace? | The Craft Atlas
Bobbin lace is a lacemaking technique made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread wound on bobbins.
- Lacemaking in Belgium | Sites and Stories
Women have made bobbin lace in Belgium for centuries, especially in the northern region of Flanders. Bruges is famous for it.
- Lace, rich tradition | Kant Centrum
Lace originated in the 16th century. First mothers taught their daughters to make bobbins, soon lace schools sprang up everywhere.
- Lace Collection | Smithsonian American Women's History
- Venetian needle lace | Britannica
Venetian needle lace, French Point De Venise, Venetian lace made with a needle from the 16th to the 19th century.
- The Drama of Point d'Alençon Needle Lace | JSTOR Daily
In its heyday, lace was beautiful, expensive, and handmade. Naturally, lace smuggling became the stuff of legend.
- 1840 – Queen Victoria's Wedding Dress | Fashion History Timeline
When Queen Victoria wore this white dress of Spitalfields silk and Honiton lace to her wedding in 1840, she broke from royal custom and encouraged a lasting tradition for Western bridal fashion.
- From embroidery to lace | Museo Caprai
We can say that embroidery is an age-old art, even if the popularity of embroidery in white is quite recent (starting from the 18th-century neoclassical period) and has changed greatly in time.
- Grace Kelly’s Wedding Dress | Philadelphia Museum of Art
Actress and Philadelphia native Grace Kelly (1929–1982) wore this gown for her wedding to Prince Rainier III of Monaco on April 19, 1956. The dress was designed by Academy Award–winning costume designer Helen Rose.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Vanderleelie on July 04, 2013:
An excellent overview of the history of lace. I am impressed with the secretive practices of lacemakers in 15th century Belgium - a great way to prevent industrial espionage and the production of cheap imitations. Voted up and interesting.
Brandie9 on April 25, 2012:
Very interesting anad full of information. Thanks.
Jennifer on February 25, 2011:
A great article. And now lace is one of the key trends at London Fashion week 2011! A timeless style.
Greensleeves34 from Southern California on October 16, 2010:
What a wonderful and interesting hub!