Cherry Wu

9 November 2023
It’s transparent, yet opaque. Dainty and thin, yet strong and coarse. The enigmatic fabric that has stretched over centuries in the fashion realm, is making its way back to the top of the trend cycle in 2023. It’s lace.

Its timelessness is what makes the sheer floral prints so remarkably cherished by generations. Its unmistaken femininity exudes throughout the decades, but its history transcends gender. Armed with the knowledge that lace is a unisex fabric, it was repped by Lil Nas X at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards as well as Jared Leto at the Los Angeles premiere of Morbius. Worn by figures like her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton herself on her wedding day to 90s fashion icon Kate Moss on the Gucci 1995 runway, lace is brimmed with emotion and experiences. It’s a fabric that represents both childhood and womanhood—which makes it that much more mysterious.

More than just home decor, the illustrious textile’s rich history is easily overlooked. What we commonly associate with "Instagram-worthy" outfits today was once steeped in profound significance. The story of lace is one of evolution, marked by both positive and negative attention, as well as an enduring appeal.

As most of us know, social media is our modern egalitarian black hole for trends, news, and ideas. Our age of prime technology has allowed us to stay interconnected and inspired by what we see from others. However, this was not the case in the 1700s. Back then, lace stood for more than we see today in Pinterest’s going-out-to-a-dive-bar-in-Manhattan outfit. Unlike its hyper-fast fashion counterpart, lace once had archival value, only worn by the highest in societies. It stood for nothing but absurd wealth. Lace, like many exports, was first developed in Europe during the 16th century, handmade and intricately designed by “patternmakers”, or artisans who specialized in making these distinct fabrics. Because of its time consuming nature, lace was—and quite frankly still is—considered a luxury fabric that evokes a sense of delicateness and sophistication. Its aristocratic essence was often worn by rulers or people at the tip of the social pyramid as a symbol for success and power. It was seen on Queen Victoria I, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Elizabeth of Valois, and of course—the famed Marie Antionette. That said, it was a tool for women and men to extravagantly drape themselves in for balls and dinners (think the dance scene between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield Ball or any scene in Bridgerton). Lace is prized in fashion culture and was treasured by its handwoven craft, but that all changed when a certain revolution rolled around.

The industrial revolution quickly buried the idea of handmade pieces. A society of careful technique was replaced with efficient machinery. This era sparked another period of change, one that modernized lace. Since lace was now more widely produced, it became more accessible. The middle class now had the ability to obtain it. To the selected societies, losing such a precious material is unfortunate. But for others, it was an epidemic for change.

Lace as a commodity now held less worth because more machines were able to mass produce it, diminishing its value in handcrafted work. You would find lace in nightgowns and canopies in the bedroom, in tablecloths and picture frames in the kitchen. After technology replaced labor, the efficiency increased, and lace became an exported good going in and out of Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, and Russia’s borders. The perplexing fabric that once traced dresses evolved, marking its new era. Although lace started to become more colloquial for people to wear and decorate, its value was not completely lost as it became an integral part of fashion in the 21st century, enjoyed by all.

Lace’s turning point happens to be when fashion got more experimental: the 90s. Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, Angelina Jolie, and Sarah Jessica Parker among many were leading the fashion revolution. You see the famous 90s sheer slip dress on all red carpets, embodied by Jennifer Aniston, Naomi Campbell, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Amidst the elegant tableau of celebrity representation, as they adorn themselves with lace, Sarah Michelle Gellar wore a sheer lace top in her acclaimed movie Cruel Intentions. Even Princess Diana herself graced the Met Gala red carpet in 1996, wearing a renowned navy Dior lace slip dress. Besides the lavish couture ensembles for the cameras, exposed bra looks were also climbing the trend ladder where young women would be seen with nothing but a lace bra and jacket on. It’s almost like you just threw on a jacket as soon as you got out of bed. Are you brave enough like them to make underwear an accessory?

Historian and lacemaker Elena Kanagy-Louz believes lace "ties to a desire to wrap oneself in beauty, perhaps as an escape or protective device in the face of a tumultuous world." She believes that lace encapsulates the essence of skilled woman’s labor which has been undervalued in history. Kanagy-Louz examines another crucial element in how incredibly versatile lace can be: innocent and prim like your childhood nightgown or hyper-feminine and romantic like mature lingerie and intimates¹. Yet, the authentic textile has its contradictions, garnering both positive and negative attention in its lifetime. Like societal standards for women, it is ever-changing. If you wear lace with nothing under it, you're a slut and you want attention. If you wear a long sleeve under, you’re not confident and not sexy enough. If you show brims of lace from your underwear, you are coined as one of 2 things: you're lazy or you're stylish.

So which one is it? Lace’s stigma varies on the spectrum. Afterall, underwear as outerwear has been around for a decade. But because we are so used to putting everything under a criticism microscope through Instagram and Snapchat, this ornamental fabric is perceived differently.

What do you think of when I say the word “lace”? Is it the vibrant skirt on the American Girl doll in your room? Or the shelves lined with lingerie when you walk into Victoria Secret? The 2000s era of Victoria's Secret initiated the transformation of lace, starting with Adriana Lima. It’s what made lace a “sexual” thing, particularly for the maze gaze. Lace is seen as a promiscuous piece with its revealing nature. It’s weaved into many lingerie pieces as an undergarment and girls face societal judgment based on their lace sartorial preferences. Society began ingraining the idea that the more skin you show, the “hotter” you look. Lingerie brands like Savage X Fenty, Skims, and Agent Provocateur have all contributed to this salacious narrative. Through their advertising and product design, these brands have influenced societal perceptions of sensuality and self-confidence, fostering a culture where less clothing is often equated with increased allure. This interpretation, although complex and multifaceted, underscores how young women are subjected to wear lace or see-through clothing to be “sexy”.

Lace, as a staple fabric itself, is an ultra-feminine thing; some might even say it’s a notion that only fashion aficionados can truly appreciate and admire. For people who aren’t familiar with style and the couture industry, they can view lace as infantile especially with aesthetics like coquette and lolita surfacing. They can also view the layering of lace on top of garments as a “ridiculous” or  “absurd” choices of clothing. Yet, when we turn the lens to a more modern day approach, the new artistic styles created by millennials and Gen-Z reclaim some of lace’s negative stigma. Yes—it can be seen as wearing your grandma’s tablecloth. But the coastal grandma, bohemian, and cottagecore aesthetic make it “acceptable” for lace to be worn these ways.

The lace revival can be attributed to three main styles that drive its trendiness: lace camis, lace skirts, and lace pants. For the tanks and camis, we see a lot of it worn on people like Madison Beer, Kendall Jenner, and Hailey Bieber. Besides these big names, you also see influencers like Ruby Lyn, Jordan Daniels, and Lucy McFadin on Instagram pairing different styles with lace. In my opinion, the lace cami looks best with no visible bralette under because it doesn’t clash with its intricate patterns. The see-through trendy tops are often styled with leather and denim, but change it to a fur coat and you get a “Daisy Jones and the Six'' 70s rock look.

Going beyond the tanks and camis, lace midi skirts have been overflowing the Pinterest feeds of all the blokette aesthetics. Blokette emerged from “Bloke core” on Tiktok, where influencers would pair masculine items like sports jerseys, moto jackets, and track jackets with lace midi skirts or white cotton pants that resemble coquette. This is what happens when you merge the girly-girls with the tomboys. The items that come with this aesthetic ranges from ballet flats to soccer shoes, AKA our favorite shoe in 2023, the Adidas sambas.

Of course, Bella Hadid pioneered a lot of this trend by wearing a motorcycle jacket with white briefs and platform Uggs in her day in SoHo last Spring. But her other looks sporting black Sambas, high knee socks, sports jacket, and midi 60s plaid pencil skirts should also be noted. Hadid’s influential style widened the experimental range for common folk. You can now walk around with your brother’s old soccer jersey, white lace skirt, and pink kitten heels. Finally, I’ve been waiting!

Lace pants are another form of this style where we mesh femininity and masculinity together. Seen on Hailey Bieber at the Saint Laurent pre-Oscars party in Los Angeles, it’s a take on the lace midi skirts, but more convenient. Making another appearance on @camillecharriere on Instagram, editor for Elle Magazine UK, the alternative style has yet to reach its peak with the big names, but I predict it will stay for 2024. 

Because of these lace trends and its image in the media, it has proven to have an aura of tastefulness, sensuality, and power. Lace never went out of style; it has simply morphed with the times. You can credit that to its juxtaposition element. Lace is interchangeably stylish and connotes different things when paired with different items. For instance, if you wear a lace cami with jeans, it tips to streetwear chic. If you wear a white midi flowy skirt, you emanate cottagecore. Besides the popular lace camis and midi skirts, here are some ways that you could style lace fabric: knee-high lace socks and cowboy boots; high neck lace long sleeve with oversized leather jacket; lace “hand warmers” with a denim jacket; lace ribbons on anything, especially hair; and lace belts, headbands, or socks.

Lace is going to continue to stay in style for the next year, and it will likely stay that way, moving with the trends and transforming with time. Regardless of there being so much sexuality in a sheer look, lace is a personal garment that conjures intimacy within the world. Its critically overlooked needlework is reminiscent of poise, refinement, and delicacy. It’s a fragile form of fabric, yet it renders nostalgia, romance, and elegance intertwined with retro quality and tradition. Like Emma Child, a fashion features editor at Marie Claire, said, “Lace—and by extension, all sartorial details synonymous with femininity—are more formidable than one easy definition can convey''. In a tempestuous world, full of cruelty and grace, lace as a fabric unites fashion under the tranquil serenity and life's exquisite blessings.

1. Childs, E. (2023, June 26). Lace clothing is the summer trend that’s enchanting all my fashion editor friends. Marie Claire Magazine. https://www.marieclaire.com/fashion/lace-trend/