When Kid Cudi attended the CFDA Fashion Awards last year, she wore a lace wedding gown with a matching veil and five o’clock shades. When Lil Nas X attended the MTV Video Music Awards in 2019, he paired a ruffled lace shirt with a silver suit. And earlier this year, when Jared Leto promoted his Marvel film “Morbis” at the Los Angeles premiere, he wore a flowing cape made of white lace.
The trend is not limited to the red carpet. In recent years, lace has appeared on menswear runways for Burberry, Moschino, Saint Laurent, Versace and other labels. Even mainstream stores, including Walmart and Amazon, now sell lace shirts and accessories for men.
Once relegated to bridal wear and women’s underwear, lace is being embraced by a new generation, especially younger men, who are drawn to the fabric’s history and craftsmanship and by a more relaxed attitude toward gender-fluid clothing.
“Maybe lace is the final frontier” in menswear, says textile historian Michelle Major, who organized “Threads of Power” with Emma Cormack and Ilona Koss, which opened in September at the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan. .
The first major show on lace in New York City in nearly 40 years, charts five centuries of the iconic material as it evolved from an elite accessory flaunted by both sexes to an everyday commodity worn almost exclusively by women.
Illustrated with pieces from the Textile Museum in St. Gallen, Switzerland, “Threads of Strength” documents how lace evolved in 16th-century Europe in two primary styles: bobbin lace, made by twisting flax or silk thread around pins to create elaborate motifs; and needle lace, where airy, patterned fabric is made with tiny stitches.
Both methods are extremely slow, labor-intensive and expensive. The kingdoms passed sumptuary laws to keep off the lace of riffraff. (They wore it anyway.) And while some noblewomen took up lacemaking as a hobby, it was mostly made by women or girls who worked for scraps in cottages or convents outside the protection of artisan guilds.
With the French Revolution came the rejection of frappe. Men’s clothing became fitted and monochromatic and remained so for over 200 years later, while lace returned to women’s fashion and became more democratic with the advancement of machine-made textiles.
Lace by its nature is inconsistent. It covers and reveals at the same time, managing to be both chaste (like a wedding veil) and provocative (like underwear). This peek-a-boo quality adds to the sexiness, and yet lace is the stuff of grandma’s hankies and daisies.
That’s why lace has become “kind of taboo for men,” said Meijer. So what is responsible for its new unisex popularity?
Claire Wilcox, senior curator of fashion at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, sees lace as the latest attempt by some men to reclaim their inner peacocks. In mid-18th-century Britain, wealthy dandies known as macaronis returned from grand tours in Italy wearing sumptuous costumes that resembled the silky, flowing pasta they had dug up. In the late 19th century, Oscar Wilde personified an aesthetic revolt against the stovepipe rigidity of Victorian men’s clothing. In the 1970s, glam rockers wore colorful, flouncy clothes to defy the postwar right.
“I think this literal loosening of clothes was linked to a loosening of morals,” Wilcox said.
Lace also fits with a larger shift toward gender-fluid fashion, with younger consumers blurring the lines between traditionally masculine and feminine. “Everything is softer, more fluid, more decorative,” Wilcox said.
“Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear”, an exhibition at the V&A, which Wilcox organized with Rosalind McKever and runs until Sunday, features a pink satin men’s jabot, or neck frill, designed by Harris Reid. Recently named Creative Director at Nina Ricci. The dress evokes 18th century British nobility via New York Dolls.
“It’s a new form of dandyism and Lace is very happy to have a part to play in it,” says Wilcox.
Where past generations might have worn lace for shock value, young people today are simply indulging in free expression, says Matthew Gnagy, a textile maker and historian who heads the Costume Center at Virginia’s Living-History Museum of Colonial Williamsburg. Gnagy points to the ease with which Harry Styles wore a sheer black blouse by Gucci at the 2019 Met Gala.
“It’s not about masculine or feminine,” Gnagy says. “Anyone of any presenting gender can wear this dress. It’s the essence of what unisex should be.”
Gnagy was less complimentary about the clothes he sees on the runway that simply transform conventional menswear into machine lace. “When lace is made by hand, it has unique properties that allow the seams to be eliminated, making the garments look like they have grown organically to a specific shape,” she said. “I’d like to see designers go a little further.”
One of those designers could be Kasuni Rathanasuriya, who has been working with lacemakers in her native Sri Lanka since 2012 to create womenswear for her label, Kur. At the request of some clients, he offered menswear for the first time this year, including $250 cotton shirts with panels of handmade bobbin lace.
“I was surprised that people accepted it,” he said. “I haven’t received a single negative comment about it.”
Other designers are drawn to the stories that lace can tell, be it the patterns that have evolved across centuries and continents, or the history of its makers and owners.
For Emily Bode, 33, the designer behind handmade menswear label Bode, lace evokes 1950s America, “when people had frequent formal meals in their homes” and other social rituals, she said. “It’s an element that has so much depth.” Since founding her label six years ago with an emphasis on upcycling, Bode says she’s noticed more “sensitivity” around clothing that extends to sentimental fabrics like lace. “I don’t think it’s quite mainstream yet, but I think people are really thinking about what they’re buying.”
Antique Lace spoke with 25-year-old Tristan Detwiler, the Southern California founder of Stan, a surf-inspired label that also uses vintage fabrics. His first formative encounter with lace involved a table runner that belonged to a friend’s grandmother, and he has been incorporating it into his menswear ever since.
For example, an 18th-century lace tablecloth from England was made into a $5,000 shawl-collar blazer, with the original scalloped hem used as an edge and inverted cherubs falling in perfect symmetry on the shoulders. The fabric is slightly yellow, but details like this, according to its website, are “a reminder of its history.”
“Even grungy skaters and surfers want style,” he said.
Although most lace is now machine-made, the art of hand-made lace has not completely disappeared.
Six years ago, three New York City lace artisans founded the Brooklyn Lace Guild to teach traditional lacemaking to a new generation. Elena Kanagy-Loux, 36, a textile artist and historian with 400,000 followers on TikTok, moved to Slovenia in the 2010s to learn the craft. Devon Thein, another founder, learned about it 50 years ago from the wife of a Danish sea captain in New Jersey.
Both women said the pandemic has been a boon for lacemaking, not just because of the magnitude of the craft, but because lacemaking can be taught on Zoom. The guild demonstrates bobbins, needles and shuttles at bird exhibitions on weekends from December.
The guild’s motto, Kanagi-Loux points out, is “lace for all.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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