ca. 1815

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Welcome back to FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Today we’re talking about what is very likely the most useful piece of fashion ever created- glasses! Of course, when they were first created, glasses were strictly created for practical purposes, but when something is worn so prominently, it doesn’t take long for style to be added.

It is unclear exactly when glasses were invented, and by whom. In ancient days, multiple cultures used polished crystals like a magnifying glass. By the Middle Ages, glass was formed with a curve, creating magnifying glasses as we know today. The earliest glasses were simply two magnifying glasses connected at the handles by a rivet, so that the lenses could be adjusted to pinch the nose. They had no handle or earpieces, and thus were held in place by hand. This lasted for centuries. The first record of glasses in the western world were mentioned by Friar Giordano da Pisa in 1306 that eyeglasses had been invented less than twenty years prior.

In Asia, glasses were introduced by Westerners in the early 15th Century, but developed from there. They added loops of cord to the lenses which hooked around the ears to hold them in place, a trend possibly introduced by the Spanish. In the 17th Century, the arched piece connecting lenses over the bridge of the nose became popular across the globe, making the adjustable rivet obsolete. Glasses continued to be held, though, until the early 18th Century. London optician Edward Scarlett was the first to add arms to glasses which rested on top of the ears. Around the same time, it became common to add handles to the side of glasses. These handled glasses, known as lorgnettes, were often very decorative and fashionable. The handle would also commonly double as a case, so they could flip open and closed. Handled glasses remained popular until World War I, when lifestyles changed and they became impractical.

At the start, glasses were only used by artisans and religious scholars. As the years progressed, wearing glasses became something of a status symbol. It showed that a person had both the time and wealth to dedicate to studies. Also, manual labor jobs were not believed to need perfect vision, while arts and writing did require it. This is why so much of the upper class carried lenses, even if they were not necessary. Lenses would even be hidden in the handles of ladies’ fans, or the knob of gentlemen’s walking sticks. The status of glasses is also what gave rise to the monocle in the Victorian Age, which were popular among wealthy men.

When handled eyeglasses fell from style, so did the status associated with them. The association with scholarly pursuits remained, though, and still lingers to this day. Of course, technology has had a huge impact on how the style of glasses has developed, and likely always will. While today glasses are often thought of as “nerdy,” it is that association with higher education which led to their popularity. Just like most trends, glasses have gone in and out of fashion over the last century, and this fluctuating trend is sure to continue.

Want to learn more about glasses? Check out these books:

Fashions In Eyeglasses: From the Fourteenth Century to the Present Day, by Richard Corson

Eyewear: Gli Occhiali, by Franca Acerenza

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

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Happy National Handwriting Day! We’re celebrating by sharing letters from our Manuscripts and Archives collection. This year’s theme is “en français”.

From top to bottom: 

  • Napoleon Bonaparte to Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, 1797  (WMSS, Group 2, Series A, Item 2218)
  • Marquis de Lafayette to Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, ca 1785-1815 (WMSS, Group 2, Series A, Item 2091)
  • Antoine Laurent Lavoisier to Eleuthere Irenee du Pont de Nemours, 1791 (WMSS, Group 4, Series A, Item 54)
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It’s time again for FRIDAY FASHION FACT! In most of these posts I focus on general trends, styles, or garments. Today, however, we’re taking a look at another side of fashion history. We’re looking at the fabric itself, and what better fabric to start with than the most elaborate? That’s right, we’re talking about lace!

There are several types of lace, including needle, crochet, and cutwork. They are all made differently, so I won’t be going into the technicalities of their creation. Instead, let’s talk about where lace came from and how it spread. Most of the time, I try to present the deeper meanings behind fashion, the motivation and inspiration that may have been lost over the years. Today I will make an exception. Lace was made and became popular because it was pretty. People just liked the way it looked. Simple as that. Of course, it did not happen overnight.

Back around the 15th Century, as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, art and decoration of all forms began to grow more elaborate. Trimmings became more common, such as simple braids, cording, and embroidery. No one is certain exactly where lace got it’s start, but it certainly evolved from these trimmings. Little loops were added to the edges of cuffs and collars. These loops were blended with increasingly complex braids to create open designs. Some loops were incorporated with cut out designs, strengthening the delicate edges with embroidery. Most commonly created with silk, these increasingly sophisticated patterns were also often made out of metallic threads, adding to their glamorous appearance. These twisted, looped, cut, and stitched designs were the earliest forms of lace.

Lace was originally worn by the clergy, as they were often among the finest dressed at the time. Of course, the wealthy quickly followed suit. It is rumored that lace began in Venice, a popular trade port of the 16th century, and so the fancy trim spread like wildfire. The most prominent use of lace during the Renaissance was of course ruffs (read more about their development here.) Lace was also commonly seen on cuffs and other trims, though, including home decor textiles (think doilies and the like.) Different styles of lace developed at different rates in various regions, some more complex, others more bold, and others more delicate. Yet due to the time consuming nature of creating lace, no matter which technique was used, it was relegated mainly to trims and small pieces for the next few centuries.

That all changed, though, thanks to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century. With the help of the new machinery that was invented, suddenly large pieces of lace could be created at relatively small cost, in a much more reasonable time frame. By the middle of the century, ball gowns began to appear with nearly full lace overlays. From this point on, lace went in and out of style purely due to aesthetic, rather than availability. During the Edwardian era, when the elaborate yet delicate styles were all the rage, lace reached its peak popularity. Gowns for both day and evening wear were created out of every type of lace available, often mixing more than one type. Though lace has never again reached the pervasiveness of that time, it has consistently made appearances in popular fashion ever since.

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

Woman Holding a Tobacco Pipe

Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760 - 1849)
Ink and color on silk
Japan ca. 1814-1815 Edo period
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery