“Of many arts one surpasses all; the threads woven by the strange power of the hand, threads which the dropping spider would in vain attempt to imitate, and which Pallas would confess she had never known; For the maiden, seated at her work, plies her fingers rapidly, and flashes the smooth balls and thousand threads into the circle, Often she fastens with her hand the innumerable needles, to bring out the various figures of the pattern; often again, she unfastens them; and from this, her amusement makes as much profit as a man earns by the sweat of his brow; and no maiden ever complains at even of the length of the day. The issue is a fine web, open to the air with many an aperture, which feeds the pride of the whole globe; which surrounds with its fine border cloaks and tuckers, and shows grandly round the throats and hands of kings; and, what is more surprising, this web is of the lightness of a feather, which in its price is too heavy for our purses. Go, ye men, inflamed with desire of the Golden Fleece, endure so many dangers by land, so many at sea, whilst the woman, remaining in her Brabantine home, prepares Phrygian fleeces by peaceful assiduity.”
The description of lace-making above, by Jacon v. Eyck brilliantly summarises the aesthetics, the standards of beauty, the social inequalities and drama of a whole era and left me bittersweetly thinking of Vermeer or even Nicolaes Maes’ “lacemakers” paintings. These, delicately presented, contradictions of the narrative, the inhumanly detailed processing of lace versus the graceful easiness with which it seemed to afterwards be hanging from its owners, the ethereal lightness of the material versus the unbearable “heaviness” of its price, can comprise the ambiguous signs, lace gives to an observer. This is a material of extreme delicate sensualism: an intricate geometric plan that melts in your hands. Beyond expressing itself precious, lace is unique for its ability to embrace the betwixt and between, to narrate an ambiguous sense of femininity that is best told as a story where opposites are free to meet.
Throughout the history of fashion lace is seldom the protagonist in a creation; rather than creating an entire piece made of lace, lace would rather decorate and emphasise the charm of the key materials. From the late sixteenth to seventeenth century, starting from needle and bobbin techniques, that originated in Venice and spread out because of intermarriages between royal families all the way to France, Spain, England, Flanders, the hand-made technique was firstly replaced by patterned nets and then by machine-lace during the industrial revolution in Britain, losing its uniquely exquisite character.
Nevertheless every era left at the fellows some leftovers of its fashion. The round, full, extravagant and excessive decoration of the Renaissance, replacing jewels with lace, simmered down when in early Baroque it was only used for wide lace collars and wide cuffs. In later baroque it was used as a decoration to jabots, apron, headdress, and sleeves to after a while knuckle down after Rococo’s quest for simplicity, softness and brightness. All this is clear after the analysis of the paintings of those eras as well as the flashback references of current fashion designers, a remarkable example being the pompous collections of Alexander McQueen obviously inspired by the flemish baroque artist Antony Van Dyck. It goes without saying that changes in consumerism and technology impacted the fashion and textile trades which led to dressing less according to the Hierarchical Principle (dressing to indicate one’s position in society) and more towards the Utility, Seduction, Expression and Cultural Principle to which gave lace an outstanding kick. From the 18th and 19th centuries’ simplified easy accessible use of the material, the late 20th Century brought with it a repetition of history in which lace became once again an exclusive item. After the foundation of Amelia Ars and the Burano Lace Schools, fashion designers such as Gabrielle Chanel were inspired in creating her luxurious evening dresses and the same goes for contemporary designers such as Erdem, Dolce&Gabbana, Gucci, Prada, Temperley’s classic collections of jaw dropping lace master pieces. All either keeping the classical Renaissance black, white or red coloured extravagant and explosive lace details like the Moulin Rouge dancers’ skirts or shifting to Rococo’s or late Impressionism’s delicately sensual light- pastel coloured creations, like Jane Birkin's famous low cut white lace dresses.
What is more clear though is the above named designers’ tendency of giving it a protagonist’s role under the haute couture’s fashion lights instead of using lace as a “spicing-up” detail like in the previous centuries. Unconventional experimentations of light-play projections on lace surfaces like the famous works of the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, inspired me during my shoot of our Alice in his hometown, Copenhagen. These modern experimental uses and even the unexpected abstract combinations of heavy materials like velvet with the latest complex-in-itself form of lace (the crochet technique) brings about a questioning. Is this the kick-start of the lace-renaissance of the high street or is the patchwork of the different eras’ leftovers coming to an end?
Special thanks to Anna Pylypenko
By Marianna Serveta