So it’s time to find your wedding dress, and for the past week you’ve lost untold hours of sleep scouring Pinterest for the right silhouettes and fabrics and necklines. Maybe you’re opting for tulle or satin or crepe. Maybe you want buttons, maybe beads. But maybe it’s lace that calls to you.
And why not? Lace is beautiful, sexy, and demure all at once – what other fabric plays such a dainty game of peek-a-boo? But if you aren’t well versed in fashion terminology, looking for a lace gown can feel completely overwhelming. The varieties seem endless.
Early versions of lace have been dated to as far back as 2,500 BC, but many of the styles that are popular today were developed during the 16th century, when the lace industry took off in Europe. Because of the amount of focused work required to produce lace by hand, the fabric was often just as expensive as precious jewelry, and European countries – especially Italy, Belgium, and France – fought tooth and nail to control its trade and manufacture. Designers and techniques became highly guarded national secrets. Anyone who wanted to get around the tight trade laws had to risk their lives to do so; smugglers eventually resorted to sending trained dogs across borders outfitted in deceptive fur vests (basically full-body wigs for dogs) stuffed full of lace. With all of the secrecy and regulation surrounding its production, lace became a highly regional industry, with specific towns developing their own recognizable styles or desperately trying to copy and outdo one another.
(An early example of lace. Ancient Roman hairnet, found in Middle Egypt)
Fortunately, the lace trade has loosened up a bit, and these days customs officials are more likely to be worried about the apples and baby carrots you bought at the snack kiosk during your overseas layover than your lace wedding gown arriving from Barcelona. Lace itself has changed, too – there are more variations on traditional styles, and it is now mostly made on machines. Synthetic fibers are now available, and even laces still made of cotton or linen differ because modern fertilizers have changed the size and strength of natural plant fibers. Nonetheless, many of the laces used today draw heavily upon the styles that were developed in Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
(Brussels lace depicting figural scenes, c. 1600; Gros Point de Venise, late 17th c.; Venetian reticella, 16th-17th c.; Antique Burano lace)
So, to help you decide which lace is right for you, we have put together a list of popular bridal laces, along with a few tips and trivia tidbits! And before we begin, we thought it would be helpful to identify the two most general categories of lace: needle lace (made by embroidering a pattern onto a fine mesh ground) and bobbin lace (made by twisting and braiding threads together).
Chantilly Lace: If you are drawn to delicate, gossamer-light laces, chances are you’re a fan of Chantilly lace. Chantilly lace is a bobbin lace from Chantilly, France, that typically features floral designs on a fine mesh background and a scalloped edge with “eyelashes.” Traditionally it was black, but white has become equally popular.
Chantilly lace rose to fame as a favorite of Marie Antoinette. After the French Revolution it fell out of favor, since looking like an aristocrat wasn’t exactly in vogue (and because quite a few lacemakers had met a nasty fate for catering to the aristocracy). Napoleon 1 brought it back, and in the 1950s it became so popular again that it even had its own song, “Chantilly Lace.”
Alençon Lace: This needle lace from Alençon, France, is probably the most popular lace for bridal gowns. The motifs are embroidered onto a fine net background and then edged by raised cords or beading. This is now mostly machine-made, but when it is made by hand, it is one of the most labor-intensive types of lace to make. One square centimeter takes up to seven hours to complete by hand.
The town of Alençon was famous in the 17th century for making beautiful reticella (a heavy needle lace featuring geometric designs). Then the Venetians developed a light, fanciful, floral style, and the French started snapping it up like candy. Louis XIV’s Secretary of the Treasury, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was so horrified by the amount of French money flowing into Italy that he snuck Venetian lace masters into France to teach Alençon lacemakers to copy Venetian lace. When the lacemakers of Alençon tried to replicate the Venetian styles, they ended up with their own unique style – Alençon lace!
Guipure Lace: A bobbin lace whose design motifs are connected by bars rather than mesh or net. Typically, guipure lace makes for a bolder design than other kinds of lace. Guipure was produced most famously in Genoa, Cluny, and Malta, and later became the foundation for English Bedfordshire lace.
Throughout history, lace has been made almost exclusively by women – and by women of all walks of life. Nuns were famous for their handiwork, and many struggling and at-risk women achieved financial independence through lacemaking thanks to special lacemaking schools set up by St. John Francis Regis, the Patron Saint of Lacemaking. In England, the shanks of the bobbins used to make guipure and other types of bobbin lace were often inscribed with messages that offer a fascinating and sometimes funny glimpse at the women’s lives, beliefs, and attitudes. They include everything from religious verses to family histories to personal messages. Oftentimes, the bobbins were gifts from lovers, with secret messages written on a section that would typically be covered by threads. Some of them are even inscribed with marriage proposals!
Broderie Anglaise: You may know this as “eyelet lace.” Broderie Anglaise is made by cutting holes out of an existing fabric and then finishing the edges off with buttonhole stitch. It got its name due to its popularity in 19th century England, but it most likely originated in Eastern Europe during the 16th century. While this lace is less common in more formal or traditional bridal gowns, it has been a mainstay in bridal fashion for a long time and is nowadays seen mostly in casual, boho styles. Most famously, Brigitte Bardot wore a gingham dress trimmed with Broderie Anglaise for her 1959 wedding to Jacques Charrier.
Happy shopping! And in case you still find yourself running up against a wall, here are a few more tips:
- If you simply can’t decide which lace you want, wear them all! Many gowns now layer different kinds of lace on top of one another, which adds beautiful depth and texture to the gown.
- As noted, lace can be quite expensive. If you want lace but are on a budget, appliqués and panels are your friend. With an appliqué, a segment of lace is stitched on top of a portion of the gown, and with a lace panel, the lace is a segment of the gown itself (not just stitched on top). You will still get the lovely effect of lace, but it generally won’t be as expensive as an all-over lace gown.
- Maybe you do have the budget for an exquisite, all-over lace gown and have fallen in love with one, but you can’t quite justify paying that much for a garment you’ll only wear once. If that is the case, consider the tradition of heirloom lace. It’s like heirloom jewelry, but with lace, and it has been practiced for almost as long as lace has existed. It basically involves re-purposing lace and incorporating it into a different garment, such as a veil, that friends, relatives, or children can wear as their “something old” at their own weddings. If your dress has a long lace train, this is an especially great option.
Finally, I will leave you with an ancient Italian legend on the origin of wedding lace. Once, long ago, a fisherman from the Italian island of Burano was out fishing in his boat. Three sirens tried to enchant him with their song, but he could think only of his fiancée. Touched by his faithfulness, the sirens transformed the foam on the waves into an intricate web of lace for him to give to his beloved. When he brought her the lace, she stitched it into a beautiful veil to wear on her wedding day. The other women of Burano were inspired to create their own lace to wear to their weddings, and a tradition was born!