“Lace is largely consumed. All different sorts of Lace -of all sizes and qualities- from Normandy, du Puy and Lorraine have a great debit.”(Translated from Jean de Monségur, 1709, Chap. XXXVI)
When looking at early modern colonial portraits, the viewer’s attention is invariably drawn to the subjects’ clothing. Closely fitted to the body, covered with intricate patterning, and heavily accessorized, one can’t help but ponder how difficult it must have been to wear such clothes. A portrait like Miguel Cabrera’s Doña María de la Luz Padilla y Gómez (c. 1760; Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York) shows her in a sumptuous white silk brocade dress, carefully painted to make visible the dress’s patterning and texture. Its large-scale floral design resembles Indian cottons, a popular source of inspiration for eighteenth-century textiles. Another component of her dress may escape initial notice: the lace cuffs that adorn her sleeves. These were likely Flemish, imported to Latin America and incorporated into her garment there.
Lace historian Santina Levey has written that lace’s curious place in European history: at once extremely common and extremely expensive, it was a commonplace luxury. Perhaps that formulation could be extended outside of Europe as well. Colonial Latin America participated in an international textile trade that included lace, which was considered an essential component of European costume in the Ancien Régime. Lace was made into cuffs, collars, shawls, head coverings, and lappets. Usually produced by female artisans, often girls, such items were accessories to garments made of other materials, principally silk. Due to its light weight, lace was easily transported, although it was heavily taxed when it crossed international borders, which contributed to its high cost.
For a woman like Doña Maria, the cost was worthwhile to convey her international flair and knowledge of European fashion. A bigger question, however, is why lace remained so important to elite dress in this period? Its meticulous mode of production, requiring skilled manipulation of flax threads into intricate patterns, is perhaps a metaphor for the workings of the early modern global world.
See also Michael Yonan (2016): “Materializing Empire in an Eighteenth-Century Lace Gown”, TEXTILE, Cloth and Culture, online publication, May 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14759756.2016.1144637