Licence to frill

Lace is having its moment in the spotlight. It is a staple of the spring/summer collections now entering stores, and is regularly on view courtesy of Downton Abbey’s Cora, Countess of Grantham, in her beaded black lace tops – not to mention Lady Mary and Lady Edith dressing for dinner in their exquisite silk-and-lace confections.

It was a red carpet staple at the Oscars too. There was Amanda Seyfried’s white lace Alexander McQueen dress (which reportedly caused her Les Misérables co-star Anne Hathaway to give up a lace Valentino in favour of the pink Prada she eventually wore), and Adèle’s bespoke black sheer lace and sequinned Jenny Packham gown.

A new exhibition, Treasures of the Royal Courts, which features items from the 16th and 17th century courts of the Tudors, Stuarts and Russian Tsars, has just opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum too, highlighting the origins of lace’s lasting allure.

At that time, says Clare Brown, curator of European textiles at the V&A, lace was the epitome of power, with the lace ruff as its most visible, and fashionable, statement. “The lace ruff focused attention on the face and showed off the money the wearers had, because lace was expensive, handmade, and labour-intensive.”

These days, it’s a slightly different story. “While in the 16th and 17th centuries, lace was all about political power, now it’s for women to assert their femininity,” says Maud Lescroart, co-owner of French lacemaker Sophie Hallette, which provided the lace for the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress (another big lace influence) and for the spring 2013 collections at Alexander McQueen, Mulberry, Yves Saint Laurent and other designers.

From the V&A’s ‘Treasures of the Royal Courts’

Roberto Cavalli, for example, used fine Chantilly lace on slinky blush gowns, neon slip dresses, tops and trousers for spring/summer. As the designer puts it: “Lace represents a softness and innocence that is not always apparent in fashion.”

But while lace can be gentle and delicate, as it is in Cavalli’s hands, it can also have a harder edge. “Lace can be aggressive,” says new British couturier Nicholas Oakwell. “No longer floral or scalloped but corded in heavy thick fabric, embellished with beads, appliquéd – and even rubberised.”

As Carmen Borgonovo, fashion director of, puts it: “There are no rules any more for lace. It can be juxtaposed with a classic piece like a T-shirt or come in bright colours – not just black and white.”

British retailer Topshop’s new offerings include lace crop tops, tailored lace trousers and shift dresses. Emma Wisden, its fashion director, even says that lace has replaced sequins and diamante as fashion’s preferred mode of adornment.

Alexander McQueen autumn/winter 2013

Lace is indeed everywhere this season – there’s Valentino’s green floral lace jumpsuit (£2,675); lace-trimmed denim hot pants from Dsquared2 (£315) and Burberry Prorsum’s green lace trench (£3,495); Huishan Zhang’s nude pleated dress with fine lace bodice (£1,550); Proenza Schouler’s crêpe de Chine halter-neck dress with silk lace cut-out inserts (£2,380); Miu Miu’s sherbet pink cady dress with macramé lace sleeves (£1,010); and Simone Rocha’s edgy neon silk lace daisy dresses, skirts and oversized jackets. Balmain’s pink floral lace dress with ladylike three-quarter sleeves (£315) sold out within a week at, an online luxury retailer, and there’s a waiting list for Lanvin’s show-stopping one-shoulder black lace gown with forest green chiffon silk (£4,490).

Lace is still expensive, though designers argue that the prices are justified. Antonio Berardi says the handmade aspect of the material makes it more akin to a piece of jewellery than clothing, and its multifaceted personality gives it a broad appeal. Hannah Teare, a stylist for Vanity Fair and for Town and Country, who recently used a purple Jacques Azagury gown with plunging lace neckline for a forthcoming Graff Diamonds ad campaign, says: “Lace can add an edge to a suit or skirt to make people stand apart from the crowd.”

For those concerned about its staying power as an investment piece, note that the recently ended autumn/winter shows also included a notable amount of lace, from Alberta Ferretti’s sheer looks to Undercover’s sly lace heart and spine inserts in white shirts, Louis Vuitton’s lace-trimmed lingerie dresses, and Stella McCartney’s lace-finished shirtdresses. The culmination was the pearl-embroidered stiff lace ruffs adorning the 10 looks in the Alexander McQueen collection, which would have fitted in just as well at the V&A as they did on the catwalk. As evidence of a once and future trend, it doesn’t get much more convincing.

‘Treasures of the Royal Courts’ is at the V&A until July 14,

Varieties of lace: Ruffs and smooth

Alençon: a French needlepoint lace that features a floral or leaf design on a sheer net background. Often embellished with beads or sequins.

Battenburg or Renaissance: a heavy 19th-century lace made from shaping linen braid or tape into patterns with thread connections to hold the pattern together.


Carrickmacross: a delicate Irish lace used in christening robes and wedding veils . Portions of fabric are cut away and reinforced with embroidery. Used on the wedding dresses of Diana, the late Princess of Wales, and the Duchess of Cambridge.

Chantilly: a delicate, soft mesh with ornate patterns of flowers, branches or ribbons on a plain background. Dating from the 17th century, it was used by the French royal court.

Cluny: made from coarse linen threads on traditional 100-year-old Leavers’ looms and jacquard machines. Often seen on table and bed linen trims. Made in Nottingham, Cluny lace was also used in the Duchess of Cambridge’s bridal gown.

Duchesse: a bobbin lace with a raised floral design on a spaced net background, it has two variations: Brussels and Bruges.

Gros Point: a raised lace with a pattern that looks like carved ivory from 17th-century Venice.

Guipure: heavy lace with a raised pattern of roses, daisies, or oval shapes covered with fine silk, gold or silver thread often used for bridalwear.

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