At Large  October 24, 2022  Kathleen Cullen

Threads of Power: A History of Lace

Copyright Museo Nacional del Prado / Art Resource, NY, Courtesy Bard Graduate Center and the Textilmuseum St Gallen

Artist unknown, detail of Isabel de Bourbon, Queen of Spain, First Wife of Philip IV (detail), ca. 1620. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, P001037.

Two and a half years in the making, Threads of Power is now open at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery. It is an impressive show that takes a historical, political, financial, and logical fashion point of view of the subject of lace.  

There is an early rule of thumb in the history of lace: those who created it could not afford to wear it. This material was an embellishment for both men and women in the ruling class between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The history and depiction of lace give us an indication of the collecting habits of the upper social classes and nobility in Europe. 

The curators of Threads of Power deliver a thorough and sumptuous exhibition that traces the development of lace from the sixteenth century to the present day. Visitors are given the opportunity to view needle and bobbin lace, ecclesiastical lace, lace worn in Hapsburg, Spain, and Bourbon, France, Swiss chemical lace, and 3-D printed silicone lace. Lace embellished headwear, collars, sleeves, and hems are on view and evident in some paintings on view at the Graduate Center Gallery and their townhouse in New York City on West 86th Street.

Art & Object spoke with two curators of the exhibition, Emma Cormack, and Michele Majer. Emma Cormack is an associate curator at the Bard Graduate Center, and Michele Majer is a Professor Emeritus at Bard, where she specializes in European and American fashion and textile history. The third curator of the exhibition, though not able to speak with Art & Object, is Ilona Kos, curator for collections and exhibitions at the Textilmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Courtesy Bard Graduate Center and the Textilmuseum St Gallen, Photo: Da Ping Luo

Exhibition installation photography, Threads of Power: Lace from the Textilmuseum St. Gallen


When asked about their research on the history of lace from the sixteenth century to the present, the curators admit they were surprised by what a niche textile tradition lace is today. Lacemaking is not taught in school, and furthermore, lace terminology is inconsistent. The fashion industry has been responsible for the later developments in lace and with the advent of the industrial revolution lace has been democratized.  

The contemporary lacemaker and textile historian, Elena Kanagy-Loux, was consulted early on in the exhibition process to focus on technique. Kanagy-Loux is known for her commission to create a lace collar for Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the twenty-fifth anniversary of her investiture to the US Supreme Court. Kanagy-Loux studied traditional lacemaking techniques for months in Europe and her commissioned piece greets visitors upon entry to the exhibition, alongside the maker’s photo. In another work, Kanagy-Loux combines the traditional bobbin lace technique with contemporary techniques to tell the biblical tale of Judith and Holofernes. The collar’s form is evocative of the scallop of Genoese bobbin lace makers of the seventeenth century, and the use of red silk reminds us she is a contemporary lacemaker. The color red also foreshadows Holofernes’ fate.

In the introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition, curators Emma Cormack and Michele Majer explain the connections between power and handmade lace in Europe. They trace it back to its sixteenth-century origins: royalty and nobility, political leaders, and the upper classes, who utilized this luxurious textile to convey authority and wealth. The exhibition’s title, Threads of Power  “is intended to evoke the power associated with those at the top of the social hierarchy in Europe, who were the primary consumers of lace for most of the past five centuries, whose lace-bedecked portraits are featured in the galleries…it also alludes to the actual and symbolic connection between makers, merchants, manufacturers, and wearers.” 

Courtesy Bard Graduate Center and the Textilmuseum St Gallen, Photo: Da Ping Luo.

Exhibition installation photography, Threads of Power: Lace from the Textilmuseum St. Gallen


These lightweight threads have been an internationally traded luxury commodity since their emergence. Lace traveled through Europe from seventeenth-century Flanders bobbin lace to Venetian needle lace. In the eighteenth century, the threads were shipped across the Atlantic to consumers in Latin America. Linking past and present in the second half of the nineteenth century, fashionable women combined antique lace with the contemporary in their garments. The very wealthy could afford “real” handmade lace while the merely comfortable wore newly made machine lace, which was less expensive to produce. It is also of note that nuns and women in religious institutions made up a large percentage of lacemakers in Europe at the time. A showstopper in the exhibition is on the third floor – a golden yellow silk antependium that was commissioned by a Cistercian monastery.

We all know that even the most seemingly frivolous decorative choice can be an expression of status. But in the nineteenth century, the invention of the first lace machines precipitated the slow death of handmade lace. This sudden availability of machine-made lace decreased the material’s status, forcing the upper classes to find new means of which to communicate their high status through dress.

International expositions were a popular format for exhibiting treasures from well-known lace collections during the Victorian period. The collection of decorative pieces in the Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851, became the foundation for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. 

To put it all in the proper perspective, the bobbin lace for a single pair of men’s Valencienne ruffles in mid-century Belgium might take a lacemaker, who would be working fifteen hours per day, ten months to complete. Because needle lace was worked with a single thread, the industrial movement to machine-made lace in 1808 caused the handmade lace values to rise. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Jules Bache Collection, 1949, 49.7.47.

François Hubert Drouais, Marie Rinteau, called Mademoiselle de Verrières, France, 1761. Oil on canvas.

Handmade lace became a rare and supreme symbol of excellence. Through the Victorian period, handmade lace had the perception that the older the lace, the better the quality. It is because of the availability of machine-made lace along with a new crop of books on the history of the material that we see a resurgence of lace in fashion during Queen Victoria’s reign. In the United States during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, wealthy families in cities such as Boston and New York begin to collect lace and pass it down as important heirlooms.

In fact, lace collecting became a popular pastime amongst the wives of wealthy New York City businessmen. The credit line of lace holdings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art bears well-known names such as Mrs. John Jacob Astor and Mrs. J.P. Morgan. Today, the lace collection at the Met includes over 5,000 pieces. In a 1932 Fortune Magazine article on lace collectors from the past century, it is proclaimed that “lace is to his wife what Rembrandts' are to the US financier.” Thankfully, New York’s high society dominated the hierarchy of collecting lace-collecting practices during the second half of the late 19th century.  

Even today, nobility keeps lace in the public eye. Kate Middleton’s wedding dress and Princess Diana’s veil will always be remembered for their delicate and intricate designs. Also of note is Michelle Obama’s 2009 matching lace coat and sheath dress for the inauguration of her husband, designed by the late Cuban-American designer, Isabel Toledo. Toledo’s creation employs lace on the body as a status symbol.

The type of fabric Toledo used was made by machine, and is referred to as “Swiss lace” or “chemical lace” and is produced in St. Gallen Switzerland. In fact, many textile manufacturing companies in St. Gallen produce the high-quality custom lace that is used in couture houses such as Prada, Dior, Yves St. Laurent, and many others. Also in St. Gallen is the Textile Museum, which houses a collection of historical lace, which is put together by Leopold Ikle, head of the famous textile company, Ikles Freres.

About the Author

Kathleen Cullen

Kathleen Cullen is a former gallerist, independent curator, and writer for She was also the former head of sales for Art & Object. Cullen’s role as a director-curator permits her to maintain an independent spirit, presenting new artists “on the edge” by feeling the “pulse” of the emerging art market. It is this inalienable eye that posits her as a harbinger of new artistic expression.

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