The Legacy of Lace

Its intricate beauty has captivated queens, starlets and today's brides

Perhaps Queen Victoria knew she was onto something when she chose a lace-trimmed white gown for her wedding to Prince Albert of Germany in 1840—she did, after all, have the original design destroyed to avoid any knockoffs. More than 100 workers were said to have spent six months toiling away on the ensemble, which included a lace veil and train. To some extent, the queen bucked what was customary in the early 19th century by commissioning the handmade lace, at a time when machine-made lace was putting scores of lace makers out of work. u Just as her choice of a white gown set a trend, so too has lace sustained the test of time. Over the years, lace has found its way into all sorts of wedding staples—veils, corsets, handkerchiefs, aisle runners, invitations, decor and lingerie. And its purpose hasn't always been purely ornamental. The aisle runner, for instance, sprang from practicality. Aware that wedding guests would track dirt from the unpaved roads into church, an usher would roll out a runner once all were seated to ensure that the bride's gown remained impeccable on her walk down the aisle. It was also believed to safeguard the virginal bride from any dark spirits that might be lurking beneath the floorboards.

Netted fabrics date back to the most primitive civilizations, with fishing nets being a prime example. More ornamental meshes from 2500 B.C. have been unearthed by archaeologists, but Sumerians were the ones who started using lace on garments in 4000 B.C. The decorative types we are more familiar with surfaced in Europe in the 15th century. Belgium, one of the original hubs for lace making, has several museums devoted to lace, as do Great Britain and France. Lace is also featured prominently in museum and design center exhibitions in Finland, Ireland, Hungary, Germany and the Czech Republic.

By the Renaissance, lace had become an incredibly prestigious element of fashion, due to the impressive workmanship involved in its production. Months might be spent working on just a couple of inches of lace, says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. Lace's peekaboo quality was another selling point since it appealed to people in a sensual way, concealing and displaying simultaneously, she says.

Once machine-made lace led to mass production, Steele says, "People paid fortunes for real handmade lace. Some wealthy people became obsessive about lace, compiling enormous collections. People like the Vanderbilts and the Rothschilds would save historical pieces of lace and use them on different garments."

Celebrities have also lent a cachet to lace. In 1950, an 18-year-old Elizabeth Taylor did her part by wearing a lace and satin Helen Rose gown to wed hotel heir Nicky Hilton. Later that year, the near-identical ensemble she wore in the original film version of Father of the Bride was a natural knockoff for brides-to-be. Rose also designed Grace Kelly's antique Valenciennes (see "Most-Loved Laces") rose point lace wedding gown, a gift from MGM in honor of her union with Prince Rainier of Monaco. More recently, Katie Holmes donned a Giorgio Armani gown with delicate white lace when she wed Tom Cruise.

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