One of the most striking features of Queen Adelaide’s frock in this week’s Rate the Dress is her glorious blonde lace sleeves.
Perhaps you’ve read a Georgette Hayer novel and come across a description of the heroine heading out to a dinner party in a dress trimmed with blonde lace and wondered what that meant? Maybe you already knew! If not, wonder no more.
‘Blonde’ is the term used to describe the natural colour of undyed silk, and blonde lace was originally the name for a specific style of continuous bobbin lace made in France (primarily Chantilly, Caen & Bayeux) from natural, undyed silk thread imported from China.
While blonde lace was originally made from undyed and unbleached silk the name later came to refer to lace in a particular style made from silk thread, even if it was bleached white, or dyed black (and occasionally other colours). In 1902 an ad offers it in white or ‘butter’, and a fashionable 1895 tea jacket is made up in ‘black blonde lace’. Sometimes different shades were be combined in the same garment, as in an 1890s blouse in brown and white blonde lace.
Blonde lace was made from the early 18th century, and was wildly popular throughout the early 19th century (hence its popularity with Hayer’s heroines). Almost every lady who attended court in the 1830s is described as wearing blonde lace. It’s immense popularity allowed it to withstand the decimation that the handmade lace industry suffered with the introduction of machine made and hand-embroidered bobbin net in the 1820s.
Machine version of blonde lace were available from 1833, leading to a slight decline in the desirability of the lace. The blonde lace industry was rescued by the growing middle class and their demand for cheaper lace, and by a change in the aesthetics of blonde lace.
Early versions of blonde lace were very light and delicate, with small floral motifs widely scattered on a delicate net background. From the 1830s the motifs on blonde lace became heavier and closer together, and vast quantities of it, usually in black, but sometimes in other colours, were imported into Spain and made in Spain, where it was used for mantillas.
Blonde lace was sold in New Zealand from at least the late 1840s and into the 1940s (though the 20th century versions are almost exclusively machine made). Though it was very popular for dresses in the early 20th century, and blouses and trim throughout the 1920s, by the 1930s it’s popularity was in decline, and in the 30’s and 40’s it was rarely used except for wedding dresses. World War II finally saw the demise of blonde lace except for in very specialised couturier garments.
Earnshaw, Pat. The Dictionary of Lace. :Dover. 1984
Powys, Marian. Lace and Lace Making. :Dover. 2002
Scott, Phillipa. The Book of Silk. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. 1993