Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Gentleman Wore Lace

When I think of a contemporary man wearing lace, the immediate image that comes to mind is of my very Alpha step-son. Strong-jawed, tanned, six-foot-four, muscle-rippling and lean as a fence post, you'd get a fist in the face if you tried to force him into a dandy's cravat, not to even consider the thick ruffs of lace so prized by gentlemen in the 16th and 17th Centuries. He's no wimp.

But masculinity was not always expressed by T shirts and billed caps with Mariners emblems prominently displayed. And although we understand suits of armor, chain mail (really should be called just mail) and 19th Century military uniforms decorated with miles of gold braid (called lace), some male clothing of the past really makes us wonder. Were the European aristocratic men of the early modern age "wusses", as my step-son would call them?
When you look at their portraits, you can clearly see the arrogance and great pride in their silk hose, velvet doublets. And lace. Just how many yards of lace did they manage to cram into those incredible ruffs, anyway?

Actually that was exactly their point. How much lace could they wear at any given time?

The man you see in this engraving is Sir Christopher Hatton, a distant relative of mine, who was Lord Chancellor of England and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. Although he does bear a strong resemblance to my youngest brother, I'm not bragging about him, though- he was utterly villainous. So he's not hero material.
But he was a very powerful person in his day, and there is no question that the Queen owed much of her success in staying on the throne through her long reign to him. Villain he might be, but he's no wuss. either.

It all goes back to the instinct for survival, one of the most basic of all drives. For all the written history of Europe, masculinity has been about power. Survival has been about power, which was largely about the accumulation of wealth and the conspicuous display of it. To survive a famine, one needed a great stockpile of food. To survive winter, a warm shelter was needed. To survive in the face of danger, the shelter needed to be secure. Such strength also meant survival for his family, clan, or country as well, and so the stronger male attracted more attention from females than a weaker one. Display of wealth became an aid to securing female interest just as surely as brightly colored males in many species of birds. So status symbols have been important to males for a very long time. We love luxury because it automatically triggers thoughts of safety, filled stomachs and solid roofs over our heads.

Take a look at today's economy, and you can see just how much the bottom line of survival means to people, even now. And never in history did money so strongly represent survival. Today most of us can't go live in the woods and shoot deer to stay alive. Money is the currency of survival. Money is power.

Although the precursors of lace go far back into the Middle Ages and perhaps even longer, true lace as we know it did not come into fashion until the 16th Century, when it suddenly exploded into popularity. Being full of holes, lace doesn't keep one warm, so only someone who has no worries about the supply of firewood can afford to dress in it. And it was very expensive, for the intricate designs require hundreds of hours of labor. Some forms of lace can take a full month of long hours of labor to produce a single inch, in length, and only a few inches wide. Going back to my ancestor's portrait, I made a guess on the amount of lace in his ruff, which I figure has about 50 folds of lace, times 2, close to 3.5 inches deep. That's 350 inches of lace, over 9 yards or 28 feet. And we said a month to make each inch of it? What would some manufactured piece in today's market cost us if it took a hundred thousand hours to make?

As the European world emerged from Medieval times, England in particular experienced an enormous surge in personal wealth. A building boom, along with the building of ships to sail to the New World and defend the English shores helped denude the country of its trees. And everywhere, men sought to display to the world their success. What better way than on their own bodies?

If the wearing of lace tells the world a man is wealthy, then the more lace a man could wear, the more powerful and wealthier he would be in the eyes of beholders. Flat lace collars gave way to ruffles of lace, which in turn became more deeply and densely ruffled to the point where no more lace could physically be packed into the ruff. Cuffs were the same. Stealing and smuggling lace makers, then lace patterns and secrets of production into England became a thriving business. But as costs lowered, its great popularity also led to its eventual fall from favor. By the early 19th Century, gentlemen had found other ways to display their wealth, such as watches dangling on gold chains and decorated with not one but several fobs. And the lace ruff became merely the descendant of the dandy's elaborate linen cravat.

Today, you're lucky to get a hero to wear a tie. The open shirt look that is common even in the business office today would cause fainting by being viewed by more fragile women of an earlier day. But in the 16th through 19th Century a bared neck was not just scandalous, it was the symbol of a man who was so poor he couldn't afford to keep his own throat warm. And did women care? You bet they did. Those were the days when very few women had any way to make a viable income of their own, no matter how hard they worked. Nor could they hope future generations would prosper if they did not actually produce a future generation, and one with enough financial security that it could hope to do well.

No, the gentleman who wore lace was not effeminate. He was in fact the Alpha male of his day, as strongly masculine as any man in history.


  1. How interesting!I knew that back "in the day" men wore lace and such, but I had no idea it showed status.

    Thanks for this interesting bit of information! Oh! And congrats on getting your author copies. It's a fabulous feeling to hold your book in your hands, isn't it?


  2. When I think about it you would have to be some kind of macho male to wear all that lace and NOT look feminine. I think a man who took that kind of pride in his appearance would have to be very confident. Confidence is very sexy. And if a man when to the trouble of wearing a lot of lace to impress me, that would boost MY confidence!

    I think that is why I read and write historical romance. The values and mores are so different and so gentile and dashing at the same time. Gotta' love it!

    And that armful of books looks good on you, Delle! Congrats!

  3. by the way, Delle, that comment listed me by my old Google account. This is Louisa Cornell!

  4. Hi Delle:
    Okay, I have to ask, can't help myself. Did those hunky, manly men wear lace on their under-breeches?

  5. You're welcome, Donica! When I started researching this piece, my thought was men have not changed a whole heck of a lot over the centuries, and some pretty macho behavior was going on in all that time.

    Louisa, I've got the change marked. I knew you, of course. And you're certainly right, a man knew who he was and didn't mind flaunting it.

  6. Actually, Carol, nobody dolled up their undergarments then. Men's drawers were quite plain. Their shirt was considered an undergarment, which was why it wasn't considered proper to appear socially in shirtsleeves. But a shirt might have ruffling at the neck or cuffs because this would be visible.

    A lady's shift is often visible at the decolletage in paintings, and it's remarkably plain in comparison with her outer garments. Night clothes were also very plain.

    By the 19th century a lady might put lace and tucks on the hem of a petticoat or drawers, but that was pretty much in hopes that it might be seen. But lace was for show, not personal delight. A good example of "If you've got it, flaunt it."

    I used this attitude toward lace as the clue that betrayed my heroine in SINS OF THE HEART. She was living in the guise of a poor lady's companion but had access to expensive lace. She loved it but didn't dare show it off, so she trimmed her petticoat, just as she had done as a highborn lady.

  7. Very informative blog, Delle. Love lace. Collected bits of it when we were in Belgium and Holland, where the hand-made tradition lingers. Thank heavens women (at least in the Western World) no longer have to compete for survival by capturing the attention of the lace (or mail or fob or sword) wearing male!

  8. I agree, Julia. I love lace too, and I'm very glad men abandoned it to females. Also glad we didn't get stick with the armor and mail, though.

  9. That was a fun way of saying it! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Great post, Delle--these are the details we often don't consider.

  11. What a great article and I loved the way you stated it all. You had me smiling, saying interesting and even laughing a bit. How times have changed.

    Tammie King

  12. Hi Delle,

    Your entry reminded me of the repeated lace reference in the poem "The Highwayman." I've always loved that overly dramatic poem about an alpha male, his lace, and his tragic end.

    "Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,

    With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!

    Blood-red were his spurs i' the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,

    When they shot him down on the highway,
    Down like a dog on the highway,

    And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat."


  13. Thanks, Donna, Heather and Tammie! Yrs, Tammie, you're right, how things have changed! I think sometimes it's really hard to grasp why people did what they did in previous eras. But they had their reasons, just as we do today. I've always believed the lack of central heat and down jackets explains a lot of how people dressed. We think mobcaps look silly, but most of us have never tried to survive in a drafty house with only coal grates for heating, in a climate with cold winters. And older women have a harder time keeping warm. I'll bet they were perfectly happy to look like they were past their last prayers if it meant keeping their heads warm.

  14. Ah, Susanna! The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes! I will never forget my junior high school English teacher reading it aloud. It changed my life because it sparked the notion of romantic tragedy in me. And like other budding romance writers, I wanted to re-write it with the right ending.

    Have you heard Loreena McKinnett's song after the poem? I play it often when I write.

  15. Oh, sorry, eager fingers are bad spellers. That's Loreena McKennitt.

  16. Delle, Loreena makes the poem come alive. She has such a tender, melodic voice. I love her music.

  17. Great blog. I'm bbookmarking this post.


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