Since the luxury clothing brand Rodarte made its debut on the 2005 cover of Women’s Wear Daily, founders Kate and Laura Mulleavy have put the CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year award, multiple years on Vogue’s Top 10 collections list, and the hearts of countless critics under their glittering belts. Even if you don’t know them by name, you’ve probably seen their work: the two designed many of the ballet costumes in Darren Aronofsky’s film, “Black Swan”, and Natalie Portman wore Rodarte when she won Best Actress for her role in the film at the 83rd Academy Awards.
Rodarte is a brand known for detail, layering fabrics and patterns to make garments that tell stories of their design. Throughout their collections, the Mulleavy sisters have claimed inspiration from countless curious sources, including the Santa Cruz boardwalk of their childhood and the California Condor. Consistently, their ability to transform these concepts into clothing is a spectacle to behold.
In their 2017 Spring and Fall Ready-to-Wear collections, Rodarte was full of garments featuring lacework, inspired by bees and spider webs.
These designs, continuing the brand’s tradition of never having garments with one-dimensional character, often had a rough, tough quality to them, and they begged the question: is there anything edgy about lace?
The answer is, unequivocally, loudly, YES. While lace may look lovely, it has an extremely checkered past. Really, a good lace doily could easily replace any of cinema’s greatest femme fatales in a pinch.
The origins of lace itself are found in 16th century Europe, where the fabric’s delicate look immediately caught the eye of both men and women of the aristocracy. The appeal of lace was only helped by the fact that it was très expensive to make, requiring three specialists: the artist who created the designs on paper, the pattern maker who translated the designs onto parchment, and the lace maker who worked directly on the patterns to make the lace. The more lace you had, the more obviously wealthy you were, and in the royal court’s tradition of constant one-upmanship, battles for the laciest outfit occurred with the stylish ferocity of a modern dance-off.
Countries like Italy and Flanders (modern day Belgium) became famous for their superior lace, so to keep countless fat stacks inside their own kingdom, many monarchies made importing foreign lace illegal. This is when lace got bloody. In the 18th and 19th centuries, lace smuggling became a literally cut-throat industry, and many smugglers died getting illegal lace to aristocrats who didn’t want to follow the rules. Lace was stuffed into pies, coffins and, in a particularly duplicitous practice popularized between France and Belgium, dogs. You may choose to learn about at your digression (it’s pretty deplorable).
After the French Revolution destroyed the court, and the Industrial Revolution made manufacturing simpler, lace floated off its pedestal. But lace has never fallen completely out of fashion, and handmade lace continues to be treated with precious care, nowhere more so than in the meticulous works of Rodarte.
Fortunately for someone on a not-so-aristocratic budget, beautiful lacey things are still available. While visiting my relatives at their lake house in the Pennsylvania Poconos, I bought this Ark & Co. lace dress to rival any Stevie Nicks ensemble at Hawley Silk Mill. Floor length and delicate, the look of its gossamer stitches caught in a breeze make a connection to a rain-speckled spider web or fluttering bee’s wing seem obvious.
When I wear this dress, the spaces between the fabric’s felonious past and high fashion present are filled in with memories of my own nostalgic history: summers spent wading in the same lake waters that my grandfather once steered a rickety bargain boat through; eating turkey sandwiches on a much better boat while my Aunt, reclining to sun herself, points at one of the giant homes built atop a lakeside cliff, indicating it as the one I should buy her when I’m rich and famous. In my most ethereal moment, the memory of feeding wild deer by hand in a lake house backyard. It was all very enchanting, and seems to fit with the spellbinding quality that lace has maintained through the centuries. Complicated, romantic, and a little bit above it all, lace has carried itself from the 16th century to the present day.
All photos of myself are the work of artist, photographer, publicist and all-around creative, Eman El Saied.