In the course of researching the designs of Jacques Doucet, I was struck by his use of lamé and other metallic fabrics and trims. Doucet was especially fascinated with gold lamé; whether in the form of basic woven fabric, brocade or netting infused with metallic threats, Doucet used these with a lavish hand in his evening dress and ball gown designs.
So just WHAT is lamé? Most of us, including this author, have visions of horrific 1980s fashions such as those worn by Alexis Carrington on Dynasty. Lamé reads “excess” and if used with a heavy hand, it tends to dominate a design to the exclusion of all else.
In reality, the word “lamé” derives from Old French and roughly translated means “thin metal plate” and such, it’s defined as “any fabric containing metal or metallic yarns as a conspicuous feature” or “any fabric woven with flat metallic yarns (similar to tinsel) that form either the ground or the pattern.” Lamé could also be used as part of a brocade.
Dating back to Classical Rome and the later Middle Ages, Lamé was was made by winding flattened metal wire around a thread core (commonly linen or silk but horsetail hair or wool were also used). This metallic thread was then woven into fabric. Also, even before this technique was developed, the metal itself was cut in thin strips from sheets of beaten or rolled gold or silver and these strips were then woven into the fabric. Finally, in some instances silver was mixed with the gold as a result, the lamé would often tarnish.
Later, in an effort to reduce costs various substitutions were sought out of which the most common was to use yarn made of aluminum laminated between layers of film. More recently in 1946 was the development of Lurex, a registered trademark for a type of yarn with a metallic appearance; Lurex is available in a wide variety of colors.
So needless to say, lamé was an expensive fabric that was used almost exclusively in the luxury trade (although lamé was also used to make clerical vestments). 🙂
While Doucet was noted for his use of gold lamé, it was used with relative restraint when compared to the following dress from circa 1879 – 1880 (at least according to the auction website):
The above dress is constructed from a combination of gold lamé brocade and burgundy velvet with violet and burgundy trim. Unfortunately, not much is known about the provenance of the dress. The style is a princess line and although the dress is supposed to date from 1879 – 1880, it’s hard to tell exactly what is going on with the train since there is no proper bustle on underneath; the fabric of the train simply falls to the floor in a jumble.
But bustle aside, the most striking thing about this dress is simply the volume of old lamé brocade that is used; it is almost everywhere with no relief. Yes, the scale is impressive but it’s also overwhelming and one could argue that it’s almost vulgar. Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing and this is amply demonstrated.
Like the excesses that characterized the 1980s, the “gilded age” of the 1870s and 1880s were also an era of excess and it only goes to show that not only do fashions re-circulate, but they often come full circle and never has this been so evident with the use of gold lamé.