Each year Bath Fashion Museum, as well as it’s long-running History of Fashion in 100 objects, hosts a themed exhibition. I suddenly realized that I’d visited the museum last year and failed to post anything about the exhibition. Even worse, I noticed that the exhibition had actually finished, so I apologize if this post tempts you with an exhibition that is no longer running. According to the Bath Fashion Museum website, a new exhibition on Royal Women is starting in February, which I’m sure will be just as extraordinary.
The first garments that you see as you enter the exhibition really intrigued me. They are these two stunning dresses made by Grace Weller, a graduate from Bath Spa University. They won the Gold Award at Graduate Fashion Week 2014. The lace used is Chantilly-style and Raschel machine-made lace from northern France.
Next, we are taken through the history of lace, exploring the traditions of lace-making from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.
Apparently, no one knows exactly when lace was invented. Lace began to appear in the dress of the most affluent members of society from the late 1500s. There are two different lace traditions; bobbin lace where the pattern is formed by weaving pairs of threads, which are wound on cylindrical bobbins and needle lace, which uses tiny stitches with a needle and thread to build up a design.
I remember seeing someone making bobbin lace at a craft fair when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen anyone making lace since. It would have been good to see someone working on this lace at the museum, it all looks so complicated and intricate to me.
The high levels of skill required for making hand-made lace meant that lace was costly to produce and could only be affordable to the most affluent in society. Lace was used in fashionable outfits from the stiffened collars and cuffs in the Elizabethan era, the frilly cuffs on a gentleman’s shirt in Stuart times and dresses worn by elegant regency ladies.
By the 1800s lace-making was a major industry and several lace production centres were established across Europe. Bobbin lace was predominantly made in Flanders and Brussels and needle lace in Venice. Devon, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire in England also made high-quality hand-made lace.
In the early nineteenth century machines were developed which could create nets that could then be decorated by hand. This fine muslin dress is decorated with two types of hand-made bobbin lace.
One of the gems in the exhibition is this net dress made in 1805, decorated with white lace. It may be the only surviving dress worn by Queen Charlotte.
According to the Guardian article, Charlotte was never regarded as a fashion leader and stuck to the styles that were popular in her youth for much of her life. This exquisite dress would have been extremely fashionable in 1805, when Charlotte was in her 60s. I do wonder whether this dress survived so well, simply because Queen Charlotte didn’t favour wearing it!
By the mid-nineteenth century, the Jacquard loom had been adapted for net-producing machines. These could now create patterned laces. Mass production of lace was now possible. Where previously lace had been used sparingly to decorate, now whole dresses could be made with lace.
Lace-making centres like Nottingham produced vast quantities of machine-made lace. and many leading fashion houses, particularly in Paris pioneered using lace in their collections. Machine-made lace was used in the latest fashions, like these cocktail dresses by Paquin and the Callot Soeurs from the 1920s:
In the 1930s, British designers were establishing their own couture houses. Lace featured prominently in their designs too. There were several dresses on show by Norman Hartnell, who dressed debutants, aristocrats and Royalty and Edward Molyneux, who worked in Paris but had a branch of his couture house in London.
The exhibition then moves into the last half of the twentieth century and showcases some very glamourous eveningwear. There are dresses worn by Princess Margaret in the 1950s and evening dresses worn at red carpet events. Lace is used in all of these; a fabric we still identify with opulence and grandeur.
The exhibition was a feast for the eyes; there were so many beautiful garments on display. However, I was left feeling that I wanted to know more about the story behind the garments, about their wearer or the designer. This particular dress (below) piqued my interest. It was made in the 1970s from an old Edwardian lace curtain. But wouldn’t it be interesting to know who wore the dress, what was the occasion and whose lace curtains were they? Perhaps we will never know.