Lace is automatically associated with luxury and glamour, and can be found on everything from ball-gowns to lingerie. However, even if you love lace you probably won’t know much about its rich history and the painstaking process from which modern machine-made lace emerged.
The Lace in Fashion exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath offers unique insight into the development of your favourite fashion statement, tracing its production from its beginnings as an artisanal craft, all the way through to the industrial methods used today.
Pulling on the museum’s archives as well as generous donations from fashion houses, the exhibition offers visitors access to a range of truly beautiful garments.
We sat down with the museum’s curator, Eleanor Summers, to ask more about what you can expect.
How did the exhibition come about?
Eleanor Summers: It developed out of a care and documentation programme which began three years ago. We received Arts Council England funds to catalogue the lace we had in our collection and found some gems in the process – particularly lace accessories and 19th and 20th century lace dresses.
What are the connotations which lace held for you before and after beginning this project?
ES: Before, I would have said wedding dresses and maybe underwear but, after three years of working with lace, I see it everywhere – lace permeates all of fashion. In the end of the 1500s when it was emerging, only the most affluent could afford it and we only see it in edgings and trimmings because of how expensive it was. You can find it everywhere now, even outerwear – for example, on show in the exhibition we have a great 2012 Simone Rocha biker jacket and mini dress ensemble.What are, in your opinion, some of the stand-out pieces from the exhibition?
ES: In the exhibition there are ten cases, each with a different theme and there’s a stand-out piece for each case. For example, our oldest piece is a smock from the 1580s. We’re not sure if it’s menswear or womenswear and it has strips of Flemish plaited bobbin lace. It’s not a fancy garment to be seen and it must have belonged to someone very wealthy.
From the 19th century, there’s an 1869 wedding veil which belonged to Alexandrina Willoughby, the daughter of the 8th Baron Middleton. She was married in Nottingham, which was a centre for machine-made lace. The veil is made from machine-made net and covered in bold and unusual motifs such as birds, bees and exotic flowers.
My pick from our 20th century pieces is to do with how lace was imitated, how people – and even couture houses – were always trying to find ways to make something which looked similar but at a lower cost. An example of this is ‘whitework’; white embroidery on white fabric. On show, we have a cream Balenciaga dress which once belonged to Martita Hunt, a stage actress famous for playing Miss Havisham. It looks like carrickmacross lace but it’s organdy and has had poplin shapes applied to it so as to imitate carrickmacross.
We’re spoiled with choice by 21st century garments, they’re all lovely! I’d say though that my stand-out piece from this period is the Simone Rocha biker dress and mini dress combination I mentioned earlier. It’s unexpected and blurs the boundaries between male and female fashion given that traditionally biker jackets were menswear and that the ensemble has been paired with brogues, also traditionally menswear items.Would you say that the exhibition explores the meeting point of artistry and craftsmanship in fashion?
ES: Absolutely! There’s an intricate and complicated tradition of lace-making. In the early days, it was all hand made with two traditions emerging at the same time in the 1500s but from different traditions – bobbin lace coming from weaving and needle lace coming from embroidery. With needle, it consisted of the technique ‘punto en aria’; a buttonhole stitch built up into a pattern. Even with mechanisation in the 1800s, hand-made lace was the ideal due to the ideas of prestige which it brought. In the 1900s, hand-made lace stopped being economic as machine-made lace had become so good at imitating hand-made lace yet was so much cheaper. However, there will always be people who will know how to make lace.
With some of the garments in the exhibition dating as far back as the 1500s, what do you think is behind the fabric’s enduring popularity?
ES: Lace has always been associated with luxury. For example, royal dress always used to use it as a symbol of status – you see it in royal portraiture and royal wedding dresses, or state function dresses. It has a grandeur which people always go back to. Out of the celebrity pieces on the red carpet, there’s always something in lace. People want a bit of that glamour and they’re able to have it when it passes over to the high street.Would you agree that lace is mostly linked to womenswear?
ES: Historically it can be found in both menswear and womenswear. For example, we have a fantastic collection of 18th century accessories which form a part of our ‘History of Fashion in 100 objects’ display from the permanent collection. Here there’s lots of lace, for example, ruffles and cuffs of male ensembles which are made of lace. In the 19th and 20th century it becomes more limited to female fashion. However, it does crop up in men’s fashion from time to time – like in the 1960s where there’s a trend for lace ruffles in men’s fashion. Actually, lace in men’s fashion is making a come back. Burberry lent us some items from their 2017 ‘Laced up’ collection which blur the boundaries between male and female fashion. The collection was full of lace shirts and the brand’s signature trench coats and the items we’ve borrowed include a white coat over a shirt with the front in chemical lace.
Finally, are there any items which you’d like to talk about but haven’t had the chance to so far?
ES: Every item has a fantastic story and I could probably talk endlessly about it all! However, there’s a full-length, black, machine-made lace Biba dress I’d like to talk about. It’s interesting because Biba was about fast-fashion and this piece really demonstrates machine-made lace hitting the mass market. Additionally, it’s cut from one large piece of lace which is interesting as it took so many years to be able to make large pieces of lace like that.