Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Lace: Part Three

Finally – at long last! – the final installment of my lace history saga. Sit back, ladies and gentlemen, and be entertained and amazed by fabric, canine criminal accomplices and dirt-coloured fashion. 

Binche - The Lace of the Underworld and Unhappy Dogs: 

As well as Valenciennes, there was another foreign lace French courtiers could not quite break the habit of wearing. Known as Belgian Binche, this was a lace famed for being spectacularly fine and smooth. 

In reaction to its continuing popularity, the French Crown placed incredibly high import duties and restrictions upon the product - so great indeed it made even the nobility balk.

Cap back, 1720-1740, Southern Netherlands (Binche Type), Bobbin lace working in linen thread, Victoria & Albert Museum.

Of course, as is the way of such things, its forbidden nature had the opposite effect to what was intended - people just wanted it all the more. Forget drug lords, lace smugglers were the underworld heavyweights of their day.

The tantalising thing about Binche lace was how close, and yet so far, it was between the Belgian town that produced it and the lace hungry buyers in France. It would have been a quick stroll across the border to nab yourself some if they’re weren’t armed men lined up ready to shoot unauthorised potential smugglers on sight.

Binche Lace, Early 18th Century, Lynx Lace. 
Eventually some bright and unpleasant smuggler got the idea use secret carriers that could scurry under the guardsmen’s noses: dogs, wearing (and this is the supremely unpleasant part) the skin of another dog. 

The illicit lace was squeezed underneath the macabre coat, and the dog would be sent over the border between the two nations. It worked well for awhile but when the authorities got a whiff of what was going on, customs officials spent at whole lot of time chasing bewildered dogs.

Ecru - The Lace of Affectation and Unwashed Queens: 

Ecru, translating in French to ‘unbleached’, is not a lace variety per se, but the name of a dirty cream colour it can be manufactured in. More importantly, it is also the colour that old lace turns after decades or centuries of resting in the family wardrobe.

Evening Gown, 1900, Gift of Madge Baker, FIDM Museum.
Now this look may not appeal to modern sensibilities, but a century or two ago a new society set was on the rise. The middle class emerged, as well as a slew of industrialists who had worked hard to build fortunes greater than many held by the withering aristocracy.

They had no need to hunger for money – what they were hungry for was heritage, the paraphernalia of old money. It’s not hard to imagine why a bit of faux-mouldering lace might appeal: “My collar? What, this old thing? It was my great-great Aunt’s. She almost married an Earl, don’t you know? Did you notice the fine work? She had it hand made in France, it’s not at all like those nasty new machine made pieces you see on some ladies about the town. Those are practically blinding – so dreadfully white.” 

And so women would take their pristine new lace and soaked them in and infusion of coffee, or if that wasn’t, available tea or potassium permanganate. It could also be boiled in a mixture of saffron, chicory and lampblack, for that real ‘right-out-of-the-attic’ look.

Dressing gown, Silk satin and lace, with satin appliqué, Victoria & Albert Museum.

A writer in 1856 found the fashion terribly vulgar, sniffing “There was a time when the dinginess of colour which of course necessarily characterises very old lace was esteemed so great a beauty as to be obtained by artificial means; and much of the lace was washed in a weak solution of coffee, and considered to have been greatly enriched by the operation. This perverted and unnatural taste has now happily passed away”.

Unfortunately for the disgusted writer, the trend returned and Nevill Jackson saw fit to bemoan the practice again in 1900, “It is not in good taste to affect the lace ‘Isabeau’, a colour much worn recently; this is a greyish coffee colour, or in plain English the colour of dirt, the name of the queen who showed her devotion to her lord by vowing to change no body linen until his return from the war.” 

And so there you have it, my dear reader - the history of an often overlooked fabric. Lace? Sweet and demure? The sole domain of ingénues and aging gentlefolk? Now you and I know better. 

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