Like no other material, a wisp of lace can stir romantic feelings and memories of a bygone era.
Lace recalls the days of the early 1900s, when women wore lace all over: on the fronts and high collars of their blouses, encircling the bodices of their dresses and bordering the hems of their petticoats.
As the 20th Century ends, women have once again taken up lace, but they're wearing it in a much different fashion than their grandmothers.
Grandma would have blushed to the collar of her lace blouse if she could see today's sexy lace bodysuits or short all-lace cocktail dresses. Lace camisoles (underwear to Grandma) have become acceptable as outerwear and can be seen peeking out from women's cocktail or business suits.
No longer is lace reserved for mostly formal affairs. Now it's all over casual wear. Lacy undershirts and T-shirts are being worn with blue jeans and overalls. Lace vests go with all kinds of denim or leggings.
Still, when women dress up, they return to lace. Some want gowns and party dresses covered with the stuff, while others choose evening wear with just a bit of lace trim.
When it comes to evening wear, lace is to Jessica McClintock what bugle beads are to Bob Mackie. The San Francisco-based designer has made lace her favorite medium. She's been adding lace to her special occasion dresses since the 1960s. Hillary Clinton wore one of McClintock's lacy granny dresses when she married Bill.
"Every designer gets associated with one fabric or another. With me, it's lace," McClintock says. "I love using lace . . . . It's a very interesting fabric. It has all kinds of shadows and texture and surface interest."
To McClintock, a little lace goes a long way.
The designs in her current collection often feature just a few inches of lacy trim. There's a group of floaty chiffon dresses inspired by the 1930s with elaborate lace collars (about $150) and short or long column dresses with lace accenting their fronts and backs ($150 to $240), available at the Jessica McClintock boutique in Crystal Court, South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
McClintock prefers using a small amount of expensive lace instead of yards of the cheap stuff. She'll use a heavily embellished European lace that runs $30 to $40 a yard as a trim around necklines and hems.
"Lace is not an easy fabric to work with," she says. "I've seen many uses of lace that are poorly engineered. It looks sloppy and messy . . . . You have to know how to get the right look out of very little lace."
Other designers have found all kinds of uses for lace. At Rose Ledonne in Laguna Niguel, vests, bodysuits, baby-doll dresses, camisoles, T-shirts and even shoes have all been treated with lace by inventive designers.
A new staple in a woman's wardrobe is an all-over lace bodysuit such as the short- or long-sleeved styles by Bisou-Bisou that come in assorted colors, including taupe, navy, black or white ($66). They go with everything from jeans to evening jackets.
"They're lined in front and sheer in back," says Rose Ledonne, boutique owner. "A lot of women are wearing them under suits instead of wearing blouses. They're not so bulky, and it's not inappropriate if it shows just a touch of lace. Of course, you don't take the jacket off."
Sheer lace vests, one by Kokoon adorned with abalone buttons ($68), can mix with casual or formal attire.
"Lace is a real novelty. People are looking for something special to spend their money on," Ledonne says. "If a plain T-shirt has a little lace trim, they want it."
Call it a desire for romance, for times gone by. Some say the popularity of lace in the 1990s is a rebellion against all of the mannish styles for women.
"When you wear something with lace you feel feminine and sexy," says Marcela Cavaglieri, co-owner of Julietta's in Laguna Beach.
Julietta's carries sheer dresses by Fiore made entirely of lace that come in off-white, burgundy, dark green, black or cocoa, with rosebud buttons for a romantic touch ($69). They can be worn over a cat suit or Julietta's crinkled rayon slip with a lace hem and touch of lace at the neck ($39). There are also sheer lace skirts and lace tank tops.
Lace should be worn in moderation; too much lace can make one look like a walking doily.
"We mix lace with contemporary knits. If you do everything in lace it's too much," says Liz Menzies, owner of Swept Away in Irvine. "We're not real frilly."
Swept Away has casual separates embellished with lace, including lace socks, undershirts, slips and T-shirts.
Lace camisoles, some with authentic Victorian appliques, ($5 to $48) can go under V-neck sweaters. Lace T-shirts ($45) are being worn with apron dresses, denim skirts or palazzos. Slips with lace on the neck and hem ($40 to $70) are worn under dresses for a "peekaboo effect," Menzies says.
"Women like having a little something show underneath something else. The layers have to be sheer and light. You can't have anything too heavy," Menzies says. "That's why lace is popular."