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.