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Maybe Grandma's lace wasn't so prim and proper after all

Nothing feels like lace on the skin; it's at once light and heavy, there and not there. The very word conjures an image of a little girl pulling a dusty flat box from under her parents' bed, the one that holds grandmother's floral lace gloves. The intricacy suggests a time when there was time – time for sewing and mending and tending to prettiness. It's the stuff of wedding dresses. It's the fabric of feminine nostalgia.

On the other hand, lace is what you drape over a corpse, right? Also, it itches. It is the fabric of the past, sternly worn by Queen Victoria. Lace is the doily on a dusty table during an obligatory holiday visit in a room with no air. Pip described Miss Havisham as draped in a fabric "which ought to be white, had been white long ago and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow." He goes on: "I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes." Lace is a fragile feminine dream gone rotten.

So it was with trepidation that I watched as lace showed up front and centre at the spring runway shows. It turned out to be mostly quite beautiful: Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton was particularly free and easy with the fabric, showing daisy-patterned lace shifts covered with sheer organza and topping his prim, cotton-candy-coloured jackets with lace collars made of broderie anglaise (I want to eat those words and wash them down with pink Champagne). The same frothy fabrics popped up on mid-century-modern silhouettes at Oscar de la Renta and Preen, with lace on the lowered hemlines of fitted skirts and anywhere else it could be attached.

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What does it mean for modern women that the style ideal for 2012 turns us all into mini-brides? This may be part of "The Duchess Effect," as British retailers call it when something Kate Middleton wears sells out immediately. Certainly, it was the Duchess who brought lace back to the popular imagination when she appeared in that Alexander McQueen wedding gown last year, her wee arms contained by sleeves that mirrored Grace Kelly's own nuptial dress. But this was a different, muted use of lace, not a sickeningly sweet sign of excess, as per the lace trim on Lady Di's vanilla explosion 30 years before. Middleton's dress spoke of a less extravagant pretty, and the spring shows kept lace in check, too: It was a fancy, fussy fabric on cool, streamlined shapes.

In the New York Observer in 2001, Alexandra Jacobs coined the phrase "I-do feminism" in a piece pondering the sudden wedding fetish among the daughters of Sixties feminists. She wrote: "Women are not only embracing marriage, which in theory could have been obsolete by now, but manicuring to hyper-perfection the very domestic idyll their mothers rallied to escape." Bridal intemperance was often justified with that battered word "choice," passing off consumption as liberation.

In the decade since, little seems to have changed. Wedding dresses are still big and the weddings bigger. The Bachelor and Bachelorette trundle on, and the Kim Kardashian-Kris Humphries debacle proved that the wedding is now such a significant entertainment event that an actual marriage isn't even required.

Is the return to a feminine, bridal-influenced look a reaffirmation of traditional gender roles? With the economy and the environment in peril, do the ladies just want to get hitched and roll around in lace? More likely, the ladies want to differentiate themselves from the porn/reality-TV star, my-dress-is-a-pleather-tube-sock look of recent years. Women don't want to leave the work force; they're just happy to see a sleeve.

The wedding fantasy may endure, but the idea that feminine dressing is at odds with power – or equality – is risibly outdated. Women know that the modesty implied by lace and other princessy looks isn't necessarily boring or even unsexy. The lie of modesty is that it conceals when what it really does is act as a big pointer directed at what is being concealed. If you look closely at The Duchess's wedding dress, it was really a fitted, strapless bodice not unlike Joan Holloway's undergarments. Lace doesn't cover so much as hint.

This season, the laciest, girliest looks were charmingly askew: Versace's futuristic biker jackets were doused in grandma's lace at Donatella's spring couture show, while Prada sent a sheer, floral-print button-down blouse down the runway atop a black leather skirt covered in a flaming sports-car graphic. Perpetual It girl Alexa Chung embodied this mixed-up femininity as she sat in the front row at the Topshop Unique show in a white ruffled shirt and wide-legged blue jeans, bringing just a dash of androgyny to the tea party. She had the new look down perfectly: pretty but strong, like well-made lace.

Follow Katrina Onstad on Twitter: @katrinaonstad

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