Chantilly lace, from ancestral crafts to wedding dresses

Delicate and refined, Chantilly lace appeared at the beginning of the 19th century and was immediately highly prized by the nobility. Now renowned throughout the world, it nevertheless reveals many secrets. Report at the Chantilly lace museum.

Lace, first called “passementerie”, appears in the 17th century, in Chantilly and its region where it is produced by several hands of women (wives of quarrymen, peasants or traders) and marketed throughout France by wealthy businessmen. Inspired by the lace of Flanders and Venice – and promoted by Anne of Bavaria, her husband the Prince of Condé and Colbert (Minister of Louis XIV) – the Cantilian region produces more and more bobbin lace, with an irreproachable quality. In 1694, there was even in Chantilly the first lace school in which “22 apprentice lace-makers” learned the techniques of this tedious know-how. And as surprising as it may seem, lace, a symbol of wealth and nobility, has long been the prerogative of men: in fact, we find this precious finery on their breeches, their frilled shirts or the edges of their sleeves. While this craft is in full swing, the factories (note that at the time, the word “manufacture” did not refer to factories, but evoked the young women who made, by hand, bobbin lace and which together, formed a real “network of little hands”) produce all kinds of lace, including Blonde, also made in Caen or Bayeux: “it is a lace made with undyed silk threads and therefore unbleached, hence this slightly golden appearance“, specifies Sarah Gillois, head of the Chantilly lace museum.

Chantilly, a lace that denotes

It was only at the beginning of the 19th century that Chantilly appeared, an extremely fine lace, black in color and with floral motifs (baskets and garlands of flowers, tulips, roses, daisies, branches, clusters …) underlined by cords (thicker threads which surround the pattern and give it relief). This black lace on a tulle background contrasts with the traditionally white lace produced in France. In addition, little by little, men abandon this delicate and refined ornament and leave it to women who love to wear it in shawls, on their dresses, in a fan, in a square or in a kerchief (woman’s cap made entirely of lace). This lace is therefore black and echoes the lace worn by Spanish women, but it is absolutely delicate and modern. And above all, it was very successful under the Second Empire with the Empress Eugenie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III. So much so that in 1825, the production of “Chantilly” is one of the main economic activities of the city (with the manufacture of porcelain): “this craft provides additional income for households, supports hundreds of Isarian families and employs more than 1,000 women in the region“, adds Sarah Gillois. But not only! Lace is not an activity only reserved for women, since the production line of handmade lace employs many men, such as designers, cardboard makers, stitchers or again the merchants.

Black Chantilly square dresses and shawls © Anaïs Thiébaux / Chantilly lace museum

From ancestral know-how to contemporary creation …

Chantilly lace, simply called “Chantilly”, is exported throughout Europe and is scattered with umbrellas, dresses and other feminine toiletries. So much so that other cities, such as Bayeux, also want to produce it. However, the second half of the 19th century marked the gradual end of manual lacework: “the mechanical trades take over the manual technique and lead to the virtual disappearance of the Cantilian lace makers“, says the person in charge of the museum, delighted to be able to present, at the Museum of Chantilly, pieces in Chantilly made by hand (including a very rare model of cape), preparatory drawings and” squares “with lace of the time .

Chantilly is still produced, but mechanically and in the North of France. Very quickly, it is modernized, adorned with geometric patterns or medallions, is shaded (the flats of silk threads are more or less opaque, creating different shades of gray), or even tinted in different colors … half of the 20th century, fashion designers use it, divert it, sublimate it and reinterpret it in their Haute-Couture, ready-to-wear or wedding dresses collections. It wants to be retro on models of dresses “new look” of the 60s, chic and sophisticated at Givenchy (it will be notably worn by Audrey Hepburn in 1966 in the film How to steal a million by William Wyler), or rock and unstructured at Balenciaga. Thinner than other laces and playing more on transparency, Chantilly has not aged a bit and is one of the most popular laces of wedding dress designers. As proof, in her latest collection, Laure de Sagazan adores decorating her 1930s-inspired models with Chantilly lace inserts. For its 2018 collection, the famous brand of wedding dresses Pronovias combines Chantilly with fine stones, tulle or guipure. In addition, the designer of wedding dresses Diane Lelys has fun designing “princess” dresses mixing games of transparency in Chantilly and clean lines. Finally, the houses of St. Patrick and Colet offer for their respective 2018 lines, bohemian and romantic models with fully embroidered Chantilly bustiers.

Dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Chantilly, by Givenchy © FRANCOIS MORI / AP / SIPA

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