A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Series Prologue
By LIZ HAGER
Editor’s Note: Today Venetian Red begins a short series on the history of lace, as depicted through seven portraits that span five centuries. Lace is delicate and fragile textile, and much of what we know about the styles and customs of lace, especially before the 17th century, are derived from the clues provided in paintings.
This is the first installment in the series. Other chapters include: Beatrice d’Este, Elizabeth I, Nicholas Tulp, Louis XIV, Clement XIII, The Duchess of Alba, Gloria Swanson; or click here for all posts in this series.
Duchesse Bobbin Lace Collar, ca. late 19th century.
It is the one costly wear which never vulgarises; jewels worn without judgment can be rendered offensive to good taste in their too apparent glitter, but lace in its comparatively quiet richness never obtrudes itself and is recognised in its true worth and beauty only by those whose superior taste has trained them to see its value. . .
—Mrs. F. Nevil Jackson, A History of Hand-Made Lace, ca. 1900.
“It’s difficult to see why lace should be so expensive; it is mostly little holes.”
—American author Mary Wilson Little (ca. 1904)
19th-century fan with Chantilly lace covering.
It’s safe to say that the average person today doesn’t think much about lace as a fashion statement. Prince aside, if it is worn at all by average people, lace is usually worn mainly by women and then generally out of sight in undergarments or as part of a specific “costume.” (We’re thinking of brides and Madonna.) Since machines fabricate pretty much everything in our world (including lace), it’s easy to understand how a frilly item once made laboriously by hand, never mind an article of clothing once de riguer for men, seems outmoded and quaint. Lace hasn’t disappeared (lace as table top linens is still widely available), but it has been relegated to the fashion specialty bin.
Yet, for many centuries, lace enjoyed a substantial and luxurious life as a fashion accoutrement. The history of lace is intertwined with the history of another class of luxury goods—fine art. It’s no accident that northern Italy and Flanders, the two pillars of lace-making during the era of its greatest prominence—the 15th through 17th centuries—rose to become principal artistic centers. Local populations made affluent through trade with the East were eager to telegraph their prosperity and power through display of their de luxe possessions.
Technically different from woven fabrics, true lace (vrai dentelle) is an ornamental open-work textile produced by looping threads around one another to form an intricate pattern. Lace is related to, but distinguishable from, other open-textured woven fabrics such as gauze; from knotted openwork such as net and macramé; from tatting; and from knitted openwork like crochet. Textile experts refer to these forms as “Other Laces.”
The origin of lace is speculative. Open-work fabrics were certainly produced in the ancient civilizations. However, the earliest existing samples of openwork, which date to dynastic Egypt, are simply woven fabric with holes created by removed threads, not lace as we understand it. (These are often referred to as drawn thread work). Because the fishermen’s net, among the oldest of human implements, is a form of lace, many textile experts believe that lace derived from netting, not from embroidery, its other cousin.
Punta in Aria lace panel, ca. 1620.
Beginning in the mid-18th century, machines have also produced lace. With large-scale improvements in production made during the Industrial Revolution lace came within the financial reach of the middle class. Gradually machines replicated most of the lace patterns previously made by hand.
Once a vital visual ornament and a viable alternative to jewelry, lace, like other forms of decorative ornament, fell out of favor during the 20th century. Perhaps, it too was a victim of the severe modernist aesthetic. As architect Adolf Loos proclaimed at the dawn of the 2oth century: “the evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects.”
Despite this condemnation, one cannot fail to appreciate lace as a luscious form of decorative adornment.
Portraits offer us an insightful commentary on the evolving varieties of lace and the style conventions associated with them. Conversely, the depiction of this delicate substance might well be the best test of a painter’s virtuosity.