Jessica Hope speaks to curator Elly Summers and discovers the extraordinary history of lace at the Fashion Museum’s new exhibition

From being painstakingly crafted by hand to modern day laser printing, the use of lace in fashion has seen dramatic changes over the past 500 years. The new exhibition Lace In Fashion at the Fashion Museum in Bath showcases 50 beautifully made items that track the use of lace across the centuries, from the late 16th century to the present day, allowing visitors to explore how technological and social changes influenced the use of lace over time.

This exhibition grew out of a project that began almost three years ago after the museum received a grant from Arts Council England to catalogue its lace collection. Lace has always played an important part in exhibitions that the museum has staged since it first opened in the 1960s, however this opportunity allowed exhibition curator Elly Summers to fully immerse herself in the history of lace and lace-making with the help of volunteers from The Lace Guild. Elly and her team searched and analysed the museum’s collection of lace and quickly realised that they had a basis for what could be an enlightening exhibition.

As you enter the exhibition, you are presented with three dresses made by Bath Spa University graduate Grace Weller for her final year project and which went on to win gold at the Graduate Fashion Week awards in 2014. These dresses were made by deconstructing and then reconstructing pieces of lace using navy and red thread, and demonstrate the importance of the museum’s continuous partnership with Bath Spa and its students.

In the first display cabinet, Elly says that this is where she really wanted to show the origins of where the popularity for lace really began. At the end of the 16th century it became incredibly fashionable to wear lace because of how intricate and expensive it was. One item in particular is a 16th century smock, decorated in small sections of lace and black embroidery. “This would have been a significant status symbol to have something covered in lace which would have been hidden under your clothing,” says Elly.

At this time, Flanders was the centre for making bobbin lace, while Venice was the main supplier of needle lace, both of which only members of royalty and aristocracy across Europe could afford. Creating lace in the 16th and 17th centuries would have been an incredibly difficult and skilled process, taking days and weeks to make a small motif all by hand which could have been added to a piece of clothing. In many cases it wasn’t the clothes themselves that cost a great deal, but the additions of lace that made the item so expensive.

And it wasn’t just women who decorated their dresses in lace – men too covered the cuffs of their jackets and the necks of their shirts in lace, all to make a statement about their wealth. In many cases, people would reuse lace dating from decades, or even centuries past, to adorn their new clothes as a symbol of prestige and status. This way they could reuse the lace from items that had been passed down in their family without having to fork out large sums of money for it, while being able to show off this beautiful piece of delicate material to onlookers.

One aspect of the exhibition that Elly wanted to convey to visitors was how lace has developed from being such an expensive material to being much more accessible and affordable fashion trend for the majority of society by the late 19th and 20th centuries. This is presented as the visitor moves along the display cabinets where we can see how developments in technology allowed lace to reach a wider audience.

After the 1840s, technology developed significantly, meaning that machine made lace could be produced. Lace could now be made on a far greater scale, making it much more affordable for those who could not purchase it before – it was no longer simply a statement for royalty. One item in particular that shows this change in manufacturing is a black Chantilly cape produced by Jolly’s in Bath dating from 1900. This item may have been made from delicate machine made lace, but to the naked eye you could not tell whether this was made by hand or not. And just to add a touch of expense, Jolly’s added a small amount of handmade lace around the neckline.

“In many cases it wasn’t the clothes themselves that cost a great deal, but the additions of lace that made the item so expensive…”

Another way that this material became more accessible was the development of chemical lace, which we still use in high street fashion today. Chemical lace came about by taking silk cloth that was covered in machine embroidery and then adding it to a chemical bath so to dissolve away the background fabric, leaving a 3D lace-looking pattern, ready to be made into clothing. You can see a style of this dress dating from New York, c1900 in the exhibition. “People were always looking to create the effect of lace without the expense,” says Elly, and this dress is a perfect example of this.

One item with an interesting story behind it in the collection is a 1970s dress by designer Catherine Buckley. At first glance it looks like a bright dress with plenty of flowing lace that you might expect from the ‘70s. But as you take a closer look, there are small eyelet holes doted across the material. Elly tells me that the designer simply made this item by taking some Nottingham lace curtains, hand painting the lace and then made it into a dress – practical recycling you could say.

Possibly the most remarkable item is a discovery that Elly made while researching the different lace items in the museum’s collection. After uncovering one dress dating from 1805, she could tell that there was something very special about this piece. “It was unusual to find a dress made entirely out of lace from this time. I could tell that it was of very good quality and because of the sheer quantity of the lace, I thought it must have been from a very wealthy patron,” she says. Determined to find out more, Elly discovered an old letter from the dress’s donor, stating that the dress had been passed down by the family of the eldest daughter of Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III.

After further research, including finding out Charlotte’s height, the museum was able to announce that it is confident that this dress could have been owned and worn by the former queen. What makes this item even more remarkable is that no piece of clothing belonging to Queen Charlotte is known to have survived the test of time. Elly reassures me that if the museum is able to acquire further funding, then there is definite scope for more research to confirm the provenance of this dress – so watch this space.

Other items in the exhibition once worn by members of the royal family include a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and another by Princess Margaret.

Fast forward to this century and there are plenty of sumptuous couture dresses from fashion houses such as Burberry and Christopher Kane in the collection, plus dresses by Jacques Azagury worn on the red carpet by the likes of Dame Helen Mirren and singer Kimberley Walsh. Standing alongside some of the biggest names in designer couture, the final item in the collection is a dress by online fashion retailer Boohoo which the dress’s donor purchased for a mere £1. This skater dress uses laser printing to create the lace effect, demonstrating how far this trend has developed over the centuries. This versatile fabric has dominated fashion for 400 years and just looking at the clothes on the high street, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

The Lace in Fashion exhibition is included in admission to the Fashion Museum and can be found downstairs in the exhibition room. This is the first in a new incentive by the museum to change the displays in the exhibition room every year, putting on show a new theme for visitors to explore, with both new and old pieces from the museum’s collection on show.

Lace in Fashion is on display until 1 January 2018. Admission is £9 adults, £7 children, and free for Discovery Card holders. Visit: fashionmuseum.co.uk.

Main image: a selection of items from the Fashion Museum’s collection. All images courtesy of Fashion Museum Bath