For much of history, the classes were divided by cleanliness. The richer you were, the cleaner you and your clothes would be. At the bottom of the social pile, people rarely washed either themselves or their clothing.
Historically, lace was part of this equation of power and wealth. As a status symbol, it had everything going for it. Handmade, it was terribly expensive (especially if it came from Bruges, the lace capital of Europe), and because it was pristine white, it required frequent and careful laundering.
Its delicacy suggested this was not something the wearer was going to be doing herself.
In the 19th century, however, lace began to lose its lofty social standing. Mass production meant that it became increasingly available to people who were neither rich nor grand. Cheap, factory-made lace began to swamp the Victorian female and her home in a welter of fussiness, with lace handkerchiefs fighting for attention with those other symbols of middle-class rectitude: the doily and the serviette.
Availability made lace declasse, and so it might have remained had the dolly bird – such as Sharon Tate, photographed here in 1968 – not been invented. Young, pretty and frequently rather silly, these icons appalled feminists and fashion-watchers alike. Covered in lace like a Christmas dinner table, they were thought utterly frivolous, socially and stylistically.
On all counts, lace should have died at that point. Yet it's still with us and likely to remain so. Balenciaga's 2006 spring/summer show was so awash with it that front-row viewers felt they were in a convention of pantomime principal boys. The best advice would be to ignore it, of course. But if you must buy it, remember to exercise restraint.

First published 2006