Clockwise from top left: the spring/summer 2016 lace T-shirt of Givenchy and shirts of Gucci, Burberry, and J W Anderson
By Raiment Young
Unlike so many of the (by-now-not-so-new) new-media generation, I have a soft spot for magazines. Flipping through the March copy of The Peak in an airport lounge recently, I was intrigued by an editorial penned by the publication’s “Watches & Fashion Editor” Lynette Koh. A pull-quote from her opinion piece was especially pulling: “When I saw the lace tops on the men’s racks, I tittered to myself and thought, ‘What man is going to wear these things?’” You can imagine the delighted smile on my already silly face, which lit up also in reaction to the full-cap sentence, no doubt the misfortune of a lax house style. Naturally, I’d like to quote in similar type, just to be accurate, but you know what that would look like here.
A reaction to her question, however, is in order: what about popes and priests? Perhaps they’re not manly enough since so many are celibate, assuming we believe the papacy. Ms Koh appears to me to have her own definition of what makes a man a man, or more precisely, what clothes make a man. Of course she’s not alone. Many women do subscribe to a certain ideal of masculine dress (the synonym for clothes, not the frocks of Valentino) that goes merely as far back as the Regency period when men were dashing in their military uniforms. Jane Austen fans will know what I mean. Masculinity, with the added advantage of handsomeness, is, therefore, devoid of the frippery and foppishness that the donning of lace suggests. Women, tittering ones I suspect—so many Lydia Bennets among us, have a penchant for men in solid, plain-weave wools and cottons as they suggest strong hands unlike the intricate loops and picots that, quizzically, seem to denote limp wrists.
The page from the March 2016 issue of The Peak
I suppose Ms Koh is not a Catholic. Admittedly it is bold of me to go there, but such a supposition, even one that asks for trouble, is inescapable since it appears that she is unaware that some of the earliest adopters of lace for clothes were the clergymen of the Catholic Church. Up till now, the liturgical vestment (not to be confused with Vetements!) surplice is still worn with lace trims. In one Christmas mass I attended in Florence’s Duomo some time back, the priests conducting the service wore white surplices with trims and insets of clearly good lace, presumably from Venice, that was evocative of the lace of Dolce and Gabbana, only the priests’ were bridal, rather than Sicilian-widow sexy-mournful.
Lace is associated with kings too, if I may interest Ms Koh. The French king Louis XIV was known to spend heavily on lace for his clothes—fancy fashion clearly could express power as much as a fancy chateau. During his reign, the court demanded different code of dress for each formal occasion. Lace was popular, and unisex, and not at all out of place with the Charles Le Brun interiors of the Versailles. Prior to Louis XIV’s rule, it was on trend for the lords to adorn themselves with lace, which had to be imported from Venice, a dent, I suspect, on French sartorial and national pride. During his time, the luxury industries, lace included, were encouraged to strengthen France’s economic might over its neighbours. And the king led by example. Whether the policy worked, we leave it to the historians to debate. But lace, it did become more fashionable.
Lace shirt by Saint Laurent and embroidered lace tunic by Gucci
Gucci may have put lace shirts in the spotlight recently, as Ms Koh observed, but the use of lace in men’s wear goes further back. My earliest memory was of a Jean Paul Gaultier cotton lace pullover with contrast, ribbed cuffs in two layers of black and white. The top was teamed with a pair of extremely wide-legged trousers that, in those days (the early ’90s, I believe), was considered a skirt with an identity problem. Further down, the two Brits that took Paris by storm, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, worked lace into their respective eponymous men’s wear lines with the same fervour seen in the women’s. Vivienne Westwood, no shrinking violet herself when it comes to delicate fabrics for men, too had lace—in some designs, patchwork, no less—incorporated into rather classic pieces, such as a cardigan.
And it isn’t really Gucci that kick-started the trend this time round. In 2014, Czech designer Vladimír Staněk introduced lace shirts for his own Stinak line, a strategy in sync with a collection that appeared to target what store buyers call “men with advanced taste”. In fact, lace is an open woven fabric, which means that some of Giorgio Armani’s gauzy and similarly textured cloths from the ’90s could be considered the precursor to lace for 21st century men. What, perhaps, could urge the raising of eyebrows is not the use of lace, but in what form they’re used. Dolce & Gabbana’s varsity jacket with lace bodice (and an embroidered owl to take the place of the alphabet used to represent the school—very Hogwarts, of course) is hardly the stuff to cause a snickering stir. Take, instead, J W Anderson’s lace shirts: not only is it sleeveless (too gay?), it is cut as a halter-neck! Will tittering, I wonder, give way to silent shock?
Dolce & Gabbana bomber jacket with lace bodice
Lace shirts or “these things”, as Ms Koh calls them (disdain or euphemism, I couldn’t quite tell; a sneer possibly), seem to feed into a fear of a man’s world turning effete. Men have been confined to limited sartorial offerings for so long that breaking free from the incarceration may upset the social balance of things. Men have to be men, as we often hear both men and women say, and they must, as a consequence, dress like men. Women, however, have made great strides; they have been emancipated for so long (thanks, Coco) that they forget what it was like to be frowned upon for even showing their ankles. Or for wearing trousers.
It took a while, but pink is finally not a colour limited to women. Maybe a period of gestation, too, is needed for lace to be seen as a masculine choice. I understand Ms Koh is likely to appreciate men in Danish label Soulland’s gingham button-down shirt with the personification of maleness printed all over it: Gordon Gekko. However, men’s wear is going through a small-scale renaissance, and as designers redefine the definitive item of men’s clothing, the shirt, chances are, they will look at what has worked so well for women. The real beef could be in the crossing of lines. Perhaps men shouldn’t encroach on these last few aesthetic and textural symbols of femininity. If they take lace, also associated with lingerie, what’s there left for the fairer sex to call their own? After all, even the skirt is no longer exclusively female. Lace will possibly not materialize in a woman’s search for her knight in shining armour, but as Denzel Washington said of those idealised mounted soldiers in The Equalizer, “problem is, they don’t exist anymore”.