The Bloody and Political History of Lace
Updated: Sep 8
When I think of lace, I think of an intricate, delicate fabric, thin as spiderwebs, adorning bridal gowns or fancy cocktail dresses. The last thing that comes to mind is politics, revolution, and beheadings. Yet, I’ve recently learned that lace does have such a history.
I came upon this nugget of information when I was reading a book called A Refuge Assured by Jocelyn Green. I will write a review of this beautifully crafted book later, but in short, a woman named Vivienne Rivard is a lace maker in France. When The Revolution strikes the land, and aristocrats come under the blade of the guillotine, her own life is threatened because lace is associated with the nobility. Her aunt, also a lace maker, is discovered and executed. She’s forced to escape to a post-revolution America to face another host of trials.
That someone could be executed for making lace was strange to me. I knew the nobility were marched to the blade and killed, but I hadn’t realized that commoners crafting lace could also face a death penalty. Guilt by association, I guess.
So, with my curiosity piqued, I had to go hunting for some history.
Lacemaking originated in Venice and Flanders and came in two different styles: Italian needle (point de Venise) and Flanders bobbin. By the mid-1500s lace became the height of fashion when Catherine de Medici, Queen of France (1547-1559; image below) began to wear it. From then on, it became of the utmost importance for nobility to wear the most exquisite lace possible.
For a while, lace was imported. Even into Louis XIV’s reign (1643-1715; image right), lace was being imported from Italy. Concerned about the outflow of money, Louis tasked his finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, with finding a solution to generating wealth in France. Colbert soon realized that both male and female nobles were spending a fortune to decorate any and every item of apparel—from waistcoats and dresses to sleeves, collars, boot tops, shawls, parasols and fans—with Venetian lace.
So, like any shrewd businessman, Colbert sought to compete. He banned the import of lace and set about the work of attracting investors and luring Venetian lacemaking talent to Alençon, Normandy; this area was a natural capital for his project, since the town already had a flourishing cottage industry employing hundreds of lace makers in villages and convents. However, he went a step further, as good competitors do.
It wasn’t enough to just re-create lace patterns that already existed. Rather, he insisted they learn to create a handmade lace known as Point de France. Though at first the women were reluctant to give up their traditional methods and patterns, they were finally persuaded to produce the new ‘point de France’ needle lace.
In this way, Colbert (image left) created a new, exclusive, and decidedly French supply, from which would follow a huge demand—in spite of the sumptuary laws.
Interestingly, in 1629 and 1633, King Louis’ father,
King Louis XIII (image right) had created laws to restrict the “superfluity of dress” for commoners. These laws banned commoners from wearing lace or metallic embroidery, because such beauty and refinement was intended only for the nobility. I also suspect that such laws were probably intended to protect the upper crust from social climbing pretenders mingling with the elites, infiltrating the ranks and gene pools—and inheritances. Puffs, slashes, and ribbons were also heavily restricted to the nobility. However, the laws weren’t strictly enforced and even commoners were soon caught up in the lace wave.
In deference to Louis, point de France (image below) became all the rage at court. The lace in the image below is an antique cravat (a necktie) with a hunting theme and is reportedly part of a set made in 1697 for the marriage of Marie-Adelaide of Savoy and Louis XIV’s grandson the duc de Bourgogne. The delicate workmanship--all by hand--is a marvel and an exquisite work of wearable art. I can't even crochet with sport weight yarn, much less create something like this. With dimensions of 10 9/16 inches x 15 3/4 inches, this lace is truly a thing of beauty that would've taken approximately two years, and several people, to produce.
Part of the rage for lace began with, supposedly, Louis XIV mistress. Legend has it that the King’s latest mistress, Marie Angélique de Scorailles, the beautiful 18-year-old Duchesse de Fontanges (image below) who, having lost her hair ribbons in the exertions of a hunt, hastily tied up her tumbling tresses in a simple lace handkerchief, which would come to be called the Fontage or Frelange style.
Charmed by this simple and impromptu hairstyle, Louis ordered her to keep the coiffure at court that night. By the next day, everyone was wearing the new ‘fontange’ (as demonstrated by Queen Mary II of England below). Yet, simplicity was never the norm at Versailles and so the fashion grew ever higher, to the point of absurdity, employing many feet of lace in an elaborate tower that could reach beyond two-feet tall.
In his memoirs, Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de Saint-Simon, quipped that the “structure of brass wire, lace, hair and baubles of all kinds… made a wo
man’s face look as if it were in the middle of her body." I almost sprayed coffee out of my nose when that image popped into my mind. I couldn't help but think of Cornholio from Beavis and Butthead, with a tall 17th century coiffure.
As the portraits of the 17th and 18th centuries attest, up until the time of the Revolution, the appetite for ever more extravagant and wildly expensive lace only grew. Along with articles of dress, lace figured in sheets, pillow edgings and bed curtains, on the layettes of newborns, and everywhere imaginable. In 1739, when the eldest daughter of Louis XV married the Prince of Spain, the bill for her lace-trimmed linen alone came to more than 33,000 gold Francs (£25,000). Considering the hours and labor that went into each foot of lace, this wasn’t outrageous—a single flounce for a dress could take 36 women 18 months to complete.
In the 17th century, the Duchess of Longueville (image right) founded an important lace making center at her château in Chantilly (thus the name of Chantilly lace) and established schools for the trade that grew to encompass more than 100 villages. By the 18th century, lace was so integral to fashionable costumes that a complicated etiquette arose around its wear: never in the morning, certain colors only at certain times of day, and specific styles and weights of lace for each season.
In 1793, everything changed. Some histories credit Marie-Antoinette’s (image below) adoption of a simpler lace to harmonize with the new lightweight Indian muslins for the demise of the most exquisite hand-made laces. If true, it was likely a relief since a gown of the time, encumbered with heavy brocades and silks, jewels, precious metals and layers of lace, could weigh more than 15 pounds.
But whether the Queen’s less elaborate lace was actually a factor, the loss of her head certainly was. The French Revolution sought to do away with everything of the Old World and the nobility and herald in a New World that did not rely on the feudal systems and monarchies. Because the lace makers were affiliated with the nobility and made the goods enjoyed primarily by the nobility, they, too, died on the scaffold. Yet, the craft was preserved with a lacemaking school at a Benedictine monastery in the village of Argentan (image below).
Around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, changes in fashion and the advent of lacemaking machines altered the industry irrevocably. Although simple machines for lacemaking had existed from the late 18th century onward, it wasn’t until the invention of the Leavers Loom (image below), in Nottingham, England around 1813, that a machine could mimic the hands of the lacemaker working her tulle ground.
However, that’s another story of political upheaval. Because, during the years 1811-1816, a little thing known as the Luddite Rebellion began in Nottingham, England and carried through the North West and Yorkshire. The Leaver’s Loom had to be smuggled out of the country. It landed in Calais and resurfaced in the lacemaking capital of Valenciennes and traveled as far as Caudry.
The rest, as they say, is history and we're now free to enjoy lace--or its cheap replicas--without losing our heads.