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The Clue in the Old Lace: Nancy Drew and Fashion History

The Secret in the Old Lace (1980) is not particularly beloved by Nancy Drew fans, and there’s no mystery why. The convoluted plot relies heavily on coincidences and lucky guesses, and it’s hampered by an awkwardly meta framing device: the fictional “girl detective” enters a magazine’s writing contest. The contest’s prompt: propose a solution to a historical whodunit involving a secret message in French, stitched into a dashing Belgian aristocrat’s lace cuffs. No sooner has Nancy completed her entry when she and her faithful gal pals, Bess and George, are invited to visit a family friend in—quelle surprise!— Belgium, where they get the chance to solve the mystery for real. Cue a lot of stilted exposition, seemingly composed by the Bruges Tourism Board.

Yet, despite its flaws, The Secret in the Old Lace isn’t just my favorite Nancy Drew book; it’s a formative text in my career as a fashion historian.1 Long after I forgot the details of the implausible storyline, I remembered the book’s tantalizing descriptions of point de gaze, and the painstakingly explained technical differences between bobbin lace and needle lace.2 I remember Nancy training her magnifying glass on a fashion clue in a portrait hanging in a museum, and her dramatic discovery of the lost cuffs, hidden within a wooden beam in a dusty attic.3

It was my first introduction to the investigative work of history in its most literal sense, and it made a powerful impression on this aspiring girl detective (I must have been about 10 when I read the book). The skills and techniques Nancy used are eminently transferable to historians: asking sometimes uncomfortable questions; traveling halfway around the world to study “old” objects that are too fragile or too precious to leave their archives (and losing one’s luggage en route); parsing an array of written, visual, and material sources; sweet-talking curators and security guards; and submitting articles in hopes of getting published—including the one you’re reading.

The word “lace” is thought to have derived from the Latin lacere, meaning to entice or ensnare, probably referencing its weblike-net ground. What better metaphor for an absorbing, confounding mystery? Lace’s deceptive transparency has always been the key to its allure. Today, it’s often associated with a somewhat old-fashioned, grandmotherly femininity—or, alternatively, the peekaboo effect of naughty lingerie. Before the Industrial Revolution mechanized the lace-making process, however, it was a sign of wealth, worn by men and women alike and literally worth its weight in gold. Until the early twentieth century, handmade lace—new or antique—remained a coveted luxury, and thus a persuasive motive for crime.4 As Agatha Christie wrote: “All the troubles in the world can be put down to money—or the lack of it.”5 It’s a thread that runs throughout the history of fashion, from ancient sumptuary laws to the “Bling Ring” busted in 2009.

Read entire article at Contingent