A soft, fine silk, cotton, or nylon material, used for making veils and dresses.
Evanescent, romantic and elegant. Loved by brides the world over. Tulle is a favorite fashion tool. As an accent, to create a lacy, floating look. To obscure the features of the face or highlight a hat. To create a structure for petticoats and skirts or puffy layers in dresses and gowns.
The idea of using a light fabric as decoration can be traced back to Ancient Greece. Custom then dictated that married women were veiled to show their conformity and humility. These veils were usually made of heavy materials, like wool, but there were also sheer and light ones – made of a linen so fine they were likened to spider’s webs. Today scholars consider veiling of the female head or face to be part of a “male ideology that required women to be silent and invisible creatures, like mute tortoises contained and hidden within their shells”. Aphrodite’s Tortoise. The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece (2003), Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones.
Lacey: The Middle Ages, a time of innovation and experimentation in fashion, including lace as decoration. Genoa and Venice were the first lace capitals, but the craft soon caught on in Belgium, France and Holland. Made from fine linen, cotton and silk lace is distinctive for it’s delicacy and motifs . In around 1700, the French began to knit a sheer fabric with hexagonal meshes, similar to a honeycomb, to create a stiffer, net like material. And so the artisans of Tulle created ‘tulle’ (and veil become ‘voile’).
Revolutionary: When John Heathcoat patented a ‘bobbin-net’ lace machine in 1809 he changed the production of lace foreve; from time-consuming handcraft to speedy machine- made. It’s said he spent hours observing the movement of a lace-maker’s fingers to invent one of the most complicated textile machines in the world.
But industrialisation was a time of change and unrest and the manufacture of tulle did not run smoothly. In particular, the invention of lace machines crippled the handmade lace industries across England, leading to unemployment and poverty. Heathcoat’s Loughborough mill was attacked by Luddites in 1816. Many of his original workforce moved to Tiverton with him – walking all the way. It was also a time of intense economic competition with Europe; to protect industrial secrets the British government banned export of new manufacturing machines. The same year 3 skilled workmen from Nottingham, thinking there might be a better future in France, smuggled machinery to Calais to set up new machine lace workshop. By the 1820’s the new Calais lace workshops were flourishing to furnish the fashionable women’s demand for lace.
Queenly: In 1840 Queen Victoria went to the altar with a white dress adorned with lace and ever since white and tulle has become synonymous with bridal gowns. Previously royal brides were married in metallic cloth – in gold and silver. But Victoria had a political statement to make; as the head of her country, not an ornament to the throne and the future mother to the heir to the throne. So she chose a dress that put her duty to her kingdom on display, rather than her wealth or beauty.
And furthermore to show her support for the lace industry, Victoria chose for her wedding dress a large piece of handmade Honiton lace. To showcase the lace, white was chosen as the most suitable colour to do so. And so the Queen symbolised practicality and patriotism, rather than purity. Victoria, perhaps so besotted with Albert and the whole romance of the wedding, posed for numerous paintings in her dress. For years after she and Prince Albert dressed up in their wedding attire and recreated the wedding in photographs!
Elegantly: The tutu, the stiff-netted tulle skirt, synomous with the ballerina’s outfit (from the French, tu-tu, meaning bottom) made its first appearance in 1832 at the Paris Opera. Marie Taglioni wore a gauzy white skirt cut to reveal her ankles, designed by Eugene Lami in La Sylphide.
From the late 19th century onwards, the tutu was steadily shortened, for ease of movement and to show off the dancer’s legs, culminating in the very short Classical tutu which leaves the whole leg free. Many Fashion designers have designed for ballet; from Cecil Beaton to Christian Lacroix and Isaac Mizrahi. Barbara Karinska (1886-1983), costumer for the New York City Ballet for many years, is perhaps the most famous designer lauded for tutus of extraordinary beauty and durability.
Theatrically: Celebrities have long known the power of a tulle skirt. From the black and white dress worn by Grace Kelly in the 1954 Hitchcock film “Rear Window” to the semi-nude pose of Marilyn Monroe…tulle makes for (lasting) image impact.
Bizarrely: Today tulle is made of silk, cotton, wool, polyamide, polyester and lurex.
And comes in a vast range of colors to stimulate the creative processes of the most innovative high fashion designers…
Featured image: Cover of Extreme Beauty; The Body Transformed. (Met Publications)