I was 22 the first time I went lingerie shopping. Underwear had, at the point, been chiefly a practicality for me. But when I got my first paycheck at my first full-time job, I wanted to try something different, exciting, and yes, sexy. I went to a boutique in Manhattan and pored through racks of bras and garter belts. I settled on a simple unlined black lace bralette, and when I fastened it in the fitting room I was in awe of myself. My skin peeked elegantly through knotted blossoms, and the taut fabric stretched to hug the curve of my breasts. I loved by body in this bra. I didn’t feel just beautiful, but luxurious, nearly regal.
Regal, as it turns out, is an apt way to describe lace’s history. Lace’s roots stretch back thousands of years – New Kingdom Egyptians draped intricate nets of silk and gold over their pharaohs’ mummified bodies. These netted fabrics were barely whispers of the intricate laces that would later be produced, but the appeal of gauzy, decorative fabrics appears to be timeless, with similar textiles cropping up in the ancient Middle East and Greece.
Lace as we know it was invented in Italy in the 15th century, mostly made by nuns for the Church. The fabric was soon sought after by the nobility, who adorned their garments with lace woven from silk, gold, and silver threads. The opulent raw materials used and the complex patterns made lace a status symbol – unlike contemporary lace that adorns lingerie and undergarments, this lace was meant to be seen. This desire to wear wealth on one’s sleeve led to outrageous fashion trends centered around lace, like the French and Elizabethan lace ruffs that were so large that they made it impossible to eat. It also led to intermittent sumptuary laws throughout Europe, which tried – and generally failed – to limit the amount and type of lace worn in public.
Catherine de Medici was at least partially responsible for the lace trade’s spread to France and England, where craftswomen invented new lace patterns and eventually created two of the most celebrated lace industries. Along with the typical garments and accessories of the period, her bedspread was made entirely of joined lace squares.
In Flanders – now Belgium – lace emerged almost concurrently with Italy and quickly gained the reputation as the finest in Europe. Belgian lace was woven with a special flax thread that was spun so finely that it was barely visible. While this lace lacked the precious silks and metals that characterized some Italian, French, and English laces, this thread was so rare and specialized that Belgian lace became highly valued and sought after.
France boasts some of the world’s most iconic laces, like Chantilly lace, but French lace almost never came to be. Lace became a symbol of the bourgeois during the Revolution. Many lace makers were executed during the reign of terror and production stopped completely during the years of the Republic. When Napoleon became emperor, he combined his nationalism and love of lace into a law that banned all non-French lace from the country. From that point, French lace boomed, with French towns developing their own forms of the craft. By the mid-19th century, there were half a million lace makers in Europe, and half of them were French.
Like all art lace bears the cultural marks of the women who made it. In Europe, lace trends mimicked those in art and music. Early laces bore the stark patterns of the Gothic era, while Renaissance laces used more flowing lines and flourishes. The excesses of Rococo and Victorian styles likewise show up in densely patterned “more is more” laces. These distinctions in lace types become more pronounced when examining non-European laces. For example, African and Arabian laces were distinct for their lack of animal figures, as Aniconism in Islam prevented Muslim lace makers from depicting living creatures.
On its surface, the history of lace is lush and exciting, full of rich women buying beautiful gowns, gloves, and veils. However, much like today’s fashion industry, this veneer came at the expense of hundreds of thousands of women workers. Lace making required incredible time, skill, and effort. In 19th century Belgium, eight-year-old girls were sent to lace school, where they worked for 12 hours each day. One-quarter of all Belgian women in 1861 were employed as lace makers, and while their labor made their employers wealthy, they were compensated with low wages and ruined eyesight. Many went blind before age 30.
Laceworker hunched over her work.
History is peppered with accounts of women lace makers who suffered all the abuses of pre-regulation industry while men profited off their labor. These conditions were exacerbated by the lace industry’s mechanization in the late 19th century. Machines made lace production quicker and easier, which led to the handmade lace industry’s decline. Home workers were more-or-less forced into factories, where most lace makers saw their quotas increase and their wages drop – in some places by two-thirds – while male factory owners raked in profits. As lace production became more heavily mechanized, men began to displace women in the factories as machine operators.
Lace makers were stereotyped as lazy, drug-addicted, and neglectful of their children., Despite the immense skill needed to work in textiles these women were strategically classified as unskilled laborers. as it justified low wages.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because exploitation is still a mainstay of the fashion industry. Women textile workers today, like the lace makers of the past, receive low wages despite working long hours at specialized work. Looking at lace’s past, we can appreciate this intricate and lovely handwork while taking away lessons about women’s work – that we cannot let the beauty and pleasure of clothing distract us from the plights of the women who make it. These two narratives are woven into every garment, and it’s up to us as feminists to break the cycle. We can appreciate craftsmanship while truly supporting women workers by buying ethically made lace and lingerie, from companies like Naja, who pays their workers higher wages and provides health benefits and flexible hours, and Style Saint, whose factories are based in LA and therefore subject to US labor protection. After all, what’s sexier than knowing your lace lingerie was made without exploiting women?
by Katharine Maller
All images public domain.
The Politics of Women's Work: The Paris Garment Trades, 1750-1915 by Judith G. Coffin. Princeton University Press, 2014.
History of Lace by Mrs. Bury Palliser. London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911. Reprinted by Dover Publications in 1984.
Lace: Its Origin and History by Samuel L. Goldenberg. New York: Brentanos, 1904.
“Women’s Employment and Industrial Organisation: Commercial Lace Embroidery in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland and England.” By Pamela Sharpe and Stanley D. Chapman. Women’s History Review 5.3 (1996): 325-351 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09612029600200121