Back in the 1940s Rita Hayworth put on that black lace nightie and became World War II's No. 1 pinup. Lace was back in style, even if you only peeked at it. But the postwar world turned its back on lace for the living room. Much too frilly-fussy for all that "contemporary"-styled furniture.
Now lace is back again big, really big, and not just in the dress world. Interior designers who only months ago were reveling in the "arts," both deco and nouveau style, have taken to the lacy trend. What Mrs. O'Leary hung on her front windows back in 1891 (and sometimes even made herself) is high fashion a century later.
What helped bring back lace into the international spotlight?
Part of it came with the 1990 Paris fashion shows when Dior, Chanel, Courreges and Christian Lacroix showed lacy creations, and lace suddenly appeared even on sporty striped knitwear. The "country" styling movement sponsored by Laura Ashley and Ralph Lauren in the 1980s also had helped pave the way for a lace explosion.
Almost immediately after the Paris showings, the lace trend invaded other media, a sure sign of a strong stylistic current. Lace jewelry and lace-covered dress shoes are now fashion notes.
For the home, manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon with wash-in-place, vinyl-backed lace tablecloths for kitchens and informal dinettes. The lace look doesn't even have to be really lace. In a recent design by Donna Blake of Papier Interiors Inc., lace-patterned fabric was used to cover a baroque headboard and a matching coverlet to unify a bedroom design in a Glen Arm residence.
The lace boom has even boosted distribution of "eyelet" lace, the kind that is mostly solid fabric with decorated holes punched in it embroidery-style. (Eyelet was a regular dress fabric of the Victorian period.)
"Today, a lot of people are looking for a lighter feel," says Faith Buie, a Chicago shop owner who imports new laces from the low countries of Europe and Scotland. Decorators are going for "a softer, more French country type of look, rather than the old geese and brown and green type of country [decor]," she says.
The "layered look" is popular in this softening of window designs. Many of the all-lace drapery treatments are made up of valances on top of panels and, as a finishing touch, tiebacks and "Priscillas," the sweeping, tied-back drapery often placed in front of vertical window curtains.
"The heavier laces are more costly," says Anna Dunmore, a saleswoman with Blanks Inc., the city's largest dry goods emporium, located on Northern Parkway. A substantial majority of today's laces are "ready-made for the rod," she says, adding, "People use our laces on gowns. It doesn't stay on the windows all the time."
While the extensive off-the-shelf new laces are not in short supply, "special order" business for the designer trade is also active. Like many other fabric outlets, Blanks has a custom department where specialty items (some at $75 a yard) can be ordered from such international big names as the Waverly division of Schumacher; Brunschweig & Fils; Pindler & Pindler; and Fabricant Inc.
Lace as a unifying effect for bedrooms, used on poster beds, windows and also in bathroom areas, has gained ground, industry buyers have reported. The fabric has gone from a sideline that was there if you wanted it for showcasing. Whimsical laces include panels depicting lovebirds, geese, hobby horses, lambs, city streets, garden plants, trains, houses and other lighthearted notes. They are popular for nurseries. One department store, Montgomery Ward, displays more than two dozen full-sized ready-made designs. Here and elsewhere, packaged lace curtains of standard (60-by-84-inch) panels are starring in fabric shops, dressed up with all sorts of frills -- tiebacks, poufs, pantaloon valances and "Priscillas."
Though many of the new designs are 100 percent polyester, they are skillfully made, often in parchment tones to imitate the most luxurious sorts of bobbin lace or Oriental cottons that can cost $50 a yard or more. Wash and hang dry is the cleaning method.
The fabric is just basically appealing, a perennial that sort of gets lost from time to time. Here are some pointers about it:
* Versatility: Many curtain laces that come in relatively inexpensive, standard bolts primarily for curtains and ranging from about $5 to $30 a yard are good enough to decorate women's garments, wedding dresses included.
* Authenticity: Most lace is pretty and much is magnificently beautiful, but there are things to watch. For instance: "Belgian lace is all handmade -- an essential distinction -- with bobbin and other techniques," according to Jennifer Merin, reporting for the Los Angeles Times after a tour of that country's famed lace markets, Brugge included. In addition, much handmade lace comes from China these days
* Sizes: For rich drapery effect, you will rarely need a lace panel more than double or 2.5 times the window width, though three or four times the width is recommended by some decorators. It is possible, especially with scenics, to use a single panel so that the whole lace pattern can be seen.
* Unusual lace uses: Stretched flat on frames and used as wall or ceiling accents or screens. Starched and made into fans for display in glass-topped boxes or as bows for packaging, tiebacks, hairpieces or use with flower arrangements. There's even lace-embossed toilet paper.
* Cost: Antique lace in fine condition is a pricey collectible -- a relatively recent trend. A fine mantilla could bring $2,000, an antique handkerchief $80 or more. Yet much fine machine lace is a good bit cheaper than heavy drapery material by the yard.
It's a peculiarity of the lace market that prices bounce all over the place. Simple lace trim for lingerie or dresses, curtains or tablecloths can be as low as 10 cents a yard, while handmade bobbin laces (especially oversized banquet cloths) command museum-type prices.
Such delicate and handmade lace work often proceeds at the rate of 1 inch of new fabric -- per hour.
In the machine-made market, simple window panels in geometric patterns can range as low as $3.50 to $4.50 in 60-by-84-inch sizes. But much traditional ready-made machine lace in shops will range from $10 to about $35 or $40 a panel. Valances, because they are ready for threading on a rod and are of eccentric shapes, cost more by area than bolt goods. (A trick for threading is to use transparent or translucent plastic rods that don't detract from the lace.)
Designers sometimes split a window into three equal parts and use lace panels in a vertical series. They use lace over satin drapes for a highly deluxe and traditional effect. And they put pleated shades behind lace window panels for privacy.
Privacy is certainly one worry, for you can see through most lace. Carol Stringer, a professional Carroll County window draper, says there's one solution. "You drape the lace over a rod at the the top part of the window and use a solid fabric cafe curtain-style on the lower part." It works, she adds, though "usually the lace and the drapes are the other way round."
Andrea Holt Hymer, a California designer, sums up lace's popularity: Home decor in the recent past, she says "was very masculine and minimalist." But now "we're moving away from that," she says. "The trend is toward more decoration -- fringe, embroidery, pattern, details. And lace fits right in with that mood."