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The Ever-Shifting Symbolism of Lace

How can one fabric be so innocent and so sexy?

If fabrics had astrological signs, lace would be that ever-adaptable, maddeningly indecisive Gemini with whom society has an ongoing "it’s complicated" relationship. If you have your doubts, try this fun exercise: Close your eyes and picture a lace ensemble. Got a mental flash of Kate Middleton’s queenly bridal gown? Her daughter Charlotte’s pristine baptism dress? Maybe, if you’re tuned into retro fashion, lace is Jane Birkin in a white lace crochet number with a plunging neckline — or screen goddess Sophia Loren wearing the raciest sheer black lace nightgown 1964 ever saw, thanks to Marriage Italian Style. Perhaps, in your mind, lace will always be the regal innocence of Grace Kelly after 5 p.m. wearing the white lace ball gown neither Birkin nor Loren would have touched with a 10-foot pole.


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Our visions of lace can be virginal and virtuous, stately and inspiring, or, if you’re a dedicated follower of Milan Fashion Week, a chic gothic widow caught between innocence and desire, á la Alberta Ferretti and Roberto Cavalli. They can include Miranda Kerr in an emerald lace cocktail dress, Kendall Jenner in a boho beige lace dress at Coachella, and everything you learned about Alencon lace while being fitted by a Parisian designer for your wedding veil. And by "everything," I mean all of the times he scolded you: "Why is this so much money, you ask? Because it has never touched the dirty inside of a sewing machine, that’s why!"

Kate Middleton on her wedding day. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty

But lace is also those H&M machine-made micro lace shorts every teenage girl from Tulsa to Tacoma saved up one hour of her babysitting money to buy this past summer. It’s as much a symbol of feminine cool to an adolescent as it is a symbol of you know what to her Frederick’s of Hollywood siren-red lace teddy-wearing mom.

"I believe lace has the ability to provoke so many symbols and even senses because it is one of the most complex and intricate fabrics to create," says designer Laura Arkin, who creates vintage-inspired headpieces at L.A. Boudoir Miami. "Your high-quality lace (which is normally very expensive) can have very intricate yet delicate designs, so its construction complexity reflects its allure. Lace patterns can range from the sweet (floral lace) to the sexy (spider lace) and more. While cotton is seen as pure and satin as sensual and so forth, lace has no stereotype. It encompasses all, which holds great power for this fabric."

Sophia Loren in Marriage Italian Style. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

At one point in time, however, lace was the symbol of one thing and one thing only: absurd wealth. Lace garments exploded onto the scene in the 16th century — and by "scene," I mean the well-to-do members of high society living in five places on Earth: Venice, France, England, Spain, and Flanders. Lacemaking was considered an art and was so sought after that it was often smuggled across borders in ways that would have made Pablo Escobar stand up and take notes. Lace was purchased and worn by folks like Elizabeth I and Elizabeth of Valois, Queen of Spain — if you were an Elizabeth and owned a jeweled crown, you could pretty much count on never leaving home without your reticella lace ruff.

Cut to a few centuries later and Marie Antoinette and Queen Victoria were positively swimming in the fabric. From there, you might as well fast forward this reel all the way to the early 1900s, when amateur lacemaking began to blow up and lace could be replicated in a jiffy, thanks to the sewing machine. The sudden ubiquity of lace meant two things: Hell to the yes, more women could now stock up on Queen Alexandra of Denmark knockoff gowns, and designers now had carte blanche to go crazy experimenting with lace, exploring its many hidden faces. Kind of like that year you studied abroad in Italy and the Roman boys opened your eyes to the fact that a sex goddess was lurking beneath your Hollister hoodie.

With the growth of the lace industry, and the 1920s flappers’s desire for a more modern take on lace that included dresses with straight lines, a relaxed fit, and mixed lace patterns, lace morphed into one of the most complex fabrics on the planet. Almost a century later, it’s still a fabric that still can’t decide whether it’s an angel or a devil; a luxury fabric we place on the highest pedestal or a saucy fiber used to make bargain basement négligées.

Jane Birkin in a lace crop top with Serge Gainsbourg. Photo: Reporters Associes/Getty

"As lace became more accessible we were able to get more creative with it," says Dawnn Karen, the founder of Fashion Psychology Institute and an adjunct faculty member at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "We have more facility to it, the have and have-nots can both get lace."

We also now have a variety of lace patterns that may look like, well, lace, but that’s only because we lack the patience to give names to and learn the names of each intricate pattern.

"While lace always has a romantic and feminine allure in its peek-a-boo, bare-yet-veiled exposure, the texture and type of the lace is what qualifies it from looking innocent, provocative, elegant, or sleazy," says Sharon Haver, fashion and style expert and the founder of FocusOnStyle.com. "There really isn’t any other fabric that can suggest so many different visual assumptions."

Grace Kelly in lace. Photo: Archive Photos/Getty

Those distinctive lace patterns, whether they form the mesh, embellished lace Givenchy jumpsuit worn by Kim Kardashian that denotes straight-up sex, or the wholesome ruffled white dress Olivia Culpo paired with a black leather jacket at Marchesa's latest fashion show, are one of the reasons lace is a split personality material. But there are two more culprits: how lace feels and the setting in which you wear it — the latter also makes lace a mood ring, Gemini’s soul animal accessory.

Above all, lace is a highly personal fabric. According to Karen, the feeling of lace isn’t about how a lace bra makes your lucky admirer feel, but about how you experience lace against your skin, as well as the energy and vibe you give off while wearing it.

If you aren’t sure how you’re feeling that day about some news you just received, try this exercise: Walk a few blocks around your city or town wearing a lace pencil skirt and blouse. As you slowly stroll and your hand brushes up against the lace or you catch a glimpse of it in the sunlight, you might find yourself feeling powerful. It might make you stand a little taller. Or maybe it will bring out your soft-hearted side and you’ll find yourself lugging home three dozen purple azaleas from the corner store.

"I think lace has this way of playing with the senses touch and sight," Karen says. "Fashion psychology takes into account human behavior. After hours [of wearing lace] the wearer could feel sexy rather than angelic. We made lace more sexy over time — lace leggings, Moulin Rouge — we made it that way because of designers’s creativity."

As for setting? Everything from lighting to the occasion and time of day can change our perception of lace. Hence, why a sliver of a lace cocktail dress can look sweet with neutral heels and an updo at your sister’s bridal shower and ooze sex appeal that same night on a date (lace-up stilettos and a red lip help). Also, why W magazine can achieve the impossible: making Lara Stone and Bella Hadid look downright creepy in its summer 2016 Cult Classics editorial. The power of a white lace-clad supermodel squad standing on a barren red rock field in broad daylight cannot be understated.

Lace handcrafters, 1949. Photo: Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty

Depending on the perceiver and the setting, Karen says lace can appear angelic and innocent on a woman wearing it for a special occasion by day and sexual and domineering after hours. And, as W proves, the color of lace sometimes has little to do with it. Contrast a blue sky and sunlight with dry, thirsty land, and suddenly a woman in a white lace dress can appear like a sexual oasis.

While lace shows no sign of quitting its perpetual swinging pendulum state between light and dark, cherub and suggestive, its greatest feat yet may be convincing us that it can be something more than the belle of the ball or lady of the night: Many designers really, really want you to accept it as a (gasp!) neutral.

Kendall Jenner at Coachella. Photo: Todd Oren/Getty

Arkin says that with lace appearing in both cheap and expensive designs, it’s become more and more acceptable to wear "anytime, anywhere, and during any season."

Think back to those H&M shorts — worn with everything from bikini tops to band T-shirts to blouses and jackets. Think about the throw-on-and-go appeal of lace maxi dresses at festival circuits. Lace nail art. Lace leggings at A Détacher; lace headpieces (and everything else) at Rodarte. Lace is present enough on the runways and in our shopping malls to be accepted as a regular guest in our closet. But, unlike most fabrics/textiles outside of silk and satin (unless you’re Dita Von Teese), the imprint of its extraordinary origins will always keep it from reaching cotton-levels of neutral acceptance.

"No matter what, lace always conveys a little bit of sexiness," says designer Shoshanna Lonstein Gruss, who says lace is a staple for her clients. "So when I am designing a dress or top that I think needs that extra wow factor, I add a lace panel or a deep-V lace neckline."

Remember that classic game of "close your eyes and picture lace" we played just moments ago? Lonstein Gruss’s vision of the fabric includes everything from mother-of-the-bride gowns to graphic lace fabric on a sexy, fitted strapless silhouette — the kind many millennial women consider a second skin.

Lace clothes angelic newborns on their most holy day, helps girls transform into women via their first lace bra, walks us down the aisle and stays with us on wedding nights, and even makes a dignified appearance at life’s last goodbyes. Lace is the fabric that grows with us, stays with us, and becomes whatever we need it to be.

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