Context is Everything: The meaning of lace

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It is the case with many artefacts that context creates meaning. A urinal in a bathroom is a utilitarian object, but displayed in a gallery and re-titled it ‘the fountain’, it becomes art. Lace is similarly affected by context. Even colour, which can have such fixed meanings in fashion, can be read differently in lace garments. Traditional colour meanings are over-ruled by context. White lace can be virginal in a bridal veil, but trashy in a peep-hole teddy. Lace has surprisingly little inherent meaning, as it varies so much depending on when, where and how it is used. In an Ann Summers lace body, lace is risqué; in Valentino’s S/S 2013 Couture collection, it is demure.

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Two properties have given lace its special status. Firstly, its complexity makes it difficult to manufacture. Historically, it was made by hand, using a laborious process that required time and skill. This made such an extravagance that for many centuries it was a privilege of the aristocracy. In the Baroque era, lace was so prized that it was worn in equivalent contexts to gold and jewels. Cuffs and collars of lace were as much signifiers of wealth as bracelets and necklaces. It is this history that Valentino or Ellie Saab have in mind when they send a model down the catwalk draped head-to-toe in fine lace and tulle.

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Lace’s second distinct feature is its ability to conceal and reveal simultaneously.  Lace is an ‘openwork’ fabric, meaning that it features open spaces. Through these spaces are revealed whatever is underneath: sometimes another layer of fabric; sometimes bare flesh. Lace is able to cover the entire body, while simultaneously revealing everything. This intermediate state between clothedness and nakedness is, argues Mario Perniola, more erotic than nudity. Any garment that suggests the “transit” from dressed to undressed is the clothing equivalent to a striptease [1]. It anticipates nudity, offering an illicit peek at the bounty hidden beneath.

By concealing and revealing in equal parts, lace is much like a glass half-full or half-empty. It down to the user to select his or her interpretation. The designer or the wearer can use lace for modest or immodest purposes. We may consider lace to be erotic in a bra and thong, but an identical lace can appear modest in a funeral veil. Here, the distinction is made between concealing and revealing the body. Lace lingerie covers parts of the body that are normally hidden: its purpose is to reveal. By contrast, a lace veil covers a part of the body that is normally on show: its purpose is to conceal.

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[1] Perniola, Mario (1989) ‘Between Clothing and Nudity’, as cited in Barcan, Ruth (2009) Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, (visited 03/02/2011)

Black dress, Valentino S/S 2013:
White dress, Ellie Saab, S/S 2013:
Portrait of Anne of Austria (c. 1625):
Portrait of Margaret Layton by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c.1620):
Funeral veil: and
Maison Michel lace headpieces:
Anne Summers lace teddy:—black/1111614818.prd
Lise Charmel black lace lingerie ensemble:

Bat costumes – How derivative is Batman’s suit?

I do not intend to accuse anyone of plagiarism. However, I do feel that it is necessary to observe the similarities between this Victorian fancy dress costume (c. 1887), and the various versions of Batman’s suit.


This costume, produced more than 50 years before the first appearance of ‘The Batman’, shares much in common with the Victorian costume. The position of the cape, and arguably even the headpiece with protruding ears, are intuitive. It would seem reasonable for any designer to independently interpret the bat as a costume with these features. The chest insignia, however, bears more similarity than coincidence could excuse. Both of these costumes bear a small, reductionist silhouette of a bat displayed on the chest.

When Bob Kane created Batman, it is likely that he would have been inspired in-part by Superman, who had appeared a year earlier. Superman’s costumes shared equivalent elements, including the cape and chest insignia. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that the Batman costume is an amalgamation of drawings of Superman and observations of bats.

Even if Kane’s costume design was directly informed by previously existing fancy-dress costumes, we must consider that Kane operated in pop culture, where ownership is fluid. Originality is about context and meaning, and less about appearance. If a costume was copied, at least it was recontextualised. In Detective comics, it acquired new audiences, and new meaning.

Victorian Bat Costume:

The Sound of Costume

A colleague, Danny Graydon, recently conducted an interview with Alan Moore, during which they discussed Moore’s recent short film, Jimmy’s End. Moore makes a cameo appearance in his film, dressed in an embroidered suit and golden winged boots. When Moore first steps onto the screen, we are shown the costume before we are shown the man. For a while, Moore’s Pegasus boots fill the screen, and the camera does not reveal his face until after panning across the awe-stricken faces of every man and woman in the crowd that watches from below. Moreover, we hear the sound of the costume before we hear the sound of Moore’s voice. The Cuban heels tap as Moore steps into frame, and the creak of leather echoes through the room.

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The shot of Moore’s boots is reminiscent of the shot encountered in so many Westerns – the close-up of spurred boots as the cowboy arrives for a duel. These shots are remembered for the sound as much as the image. The scraping of heels against gravel, and the jangle of spurs, expose the eerie silence that seems to descend on every Wild West town as a hero and villain prepare for a standoff.

The sounds of clothes tend to go unnoticed in the real world. They are so quiet that they tend to form part of the soundscape that is a background to more significant noises. If we want to hear them, we must cancel out every other sound, and listen closely. In film, this requires all other noises to be hushed. It is a kind of audio-equivalent to zooming-in on the subject: an audio close-up. These diegetic sounds – that is, sounds that originate from something that appears on screen – are often considered secondary to the visual experience of film. They add “surplus value”, complementing objects and events that can already be seen on screen: enhancing, rather than adding to, the narrative [1].

Not all diegetic sounds originate from something seen. Clothing can appear offscreen, its presence signified by sound. These are “acusmatic” sounds, similar to a gunshot heard in a neighbouring room, or a scream from the off-screen victim. Such sounds often accompany actions that may be too distasteful to depict directly. When clothes make sound off screen, it may be for the same reason. The sound of a dress being unzipped can signify that a woman is getting undressed, without the filmmakers having to show her nudity. These sounds do more than simply enhance the narrative – they drive it forward. They describe events that are a crucial part of the plot, and without them the visions on the screen would be confusing or incomplete.

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The parts of a garment that make the loudest noises tend to be fastenings – zips and  poppers. Equally noisy is the snap of elastic. The sound of clothes, therefore, often does not belong to the garment, so much as to the act of dressing or undressing. These sounds are unavoidably erotic, signifying the transition between clothedness and nudity. Even when they do not involve fastenings, sounds are created by the relationship between clothes and the body. The body caresses itself against cloth as the wearer moves. It is perhaps for this reason that filmmakers choose to enhance the sound of clothes: they signify exposure or bodily contact without being explicitly erotic.

[1] Lupone, Mario, ‘The Sound Dimension in Cinema,’

Alan Moore’s boots in Jimmy’s End:
Girl unzips:
Live and Let Die, Bond gadget: