I found myself in Calais recently and decided to visit the Lace Museum as I’ve heard so much about it from friends who’ve been there.
What an absolutely amazing treasure trove this place is.
Calais became famous for its lace making in the 19th Century when English lace makers, famous for their lace making loom inventions, smuggled one of the new fangled looms into France and set up shop at Saint-Pierre just a stone’s throw from the museum. The Anglo-French collaboration was immensely successful and completely transformed the French lace making industry which had hitherto been completely by hand. Calais lace and tulle became renowned, desired by the rich, famous and royalty and the lace making industry in Calais employed some 40,000 workers in its heyday.
Today Calais is still an important centre for the production of machine lace and is much sought after. Clients of Calais lace include Valentino, Jean Paul Gaultier, Lacroix and Calvin Klein and the majority of the lace produce is exported to countries around the world to be used in the production of wedding dresses and lingerie.
The museum is located in a 19th Century lace factory and the first thing you notice is the huge and striking metal panels of dotted metal on the exterior. The panels actually mirror the cards used in the production of lace on an industrial loom and this creative piece of architecture is a hint of what might be inside – a real juxtaposition of the very old and the very new.
When you enter the reception you might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about as there are no signs of what is to come.
You access the exhibitions via the lift opposite the reception desk (it took me a while to figure it out – that’s why I’m telling you this!) and the exhibitions are on levels 1 and 2 and I have to say they blew me away.
Even the building is amazing – a renovated centuries old stone building which was once the Boulart Tulle lace factory, now with futuristic glass and steel additions. The glass and mirror display cases are so chic that they demand your admiration and I found out that the architects are the same people who designed Jean-Paul Gaultier’s HQ and the Champollion Museum in Figeac.
Here you can discover the history of lace making from the handmade lace of the 17th Century right up to modern times and helping you to understand just how fabulous this material is – the costumes. Hundreds of them.
The stylish presentation is simply remarkable – from antique dresses with lace collars, bodices and petticoats to up to the minute designer haut couture. There are examples of lingerie from early days to today, clothes from the 18th to the 20th century and designer outfits which perfectly illustrate the importance of lace. Brocade gowns, velvet frock coats and rolls of exquisite, delicate lace in all colours.
This place also has a unique collection of looms – 9 huge industrial looms – 5 of them are still working and there are demonstrations daily. I had no idea that a loom would be that huge and that loud until I visited this place! There is also a large collection of smaller looms and I loved how there were big baskets of thread everywhere, seats placed in front of ancient looms looking like the weaver had just popped out for lunch! There were enormous silk bobbins – over 2m high and still being used at the museum to make lace today.
I have also never been so close to so much haut couture in my life. The museum often puts on temporary exhibitions and I was lucky enough to catch “Plein les Yeux” which showcased costumes that “extend the body to achieve spectacular effects”. Sounds wild – it is. A dress worn by Vivien Leigh in the film Scarlett O’Hara, designs by Chanel, fantastical designs by Thierry Mugler, Dior, Givenchy, Lacroix, Jean-Paul Gaultier – so close you can see the stitching, the beads, the shimmering materials…
Punctuating all the displays are superb video displays – film snippets which show the costumes in front of your eyes – like the outfits worn by Isabelle Adjani and Daniel Auteuil in the 1994 film “La Reine Margot”. Films depicting models on the cat walk – larger than life and perfect, demanding your attention. I spoke to a British family who like me were left open-mouthed at what they found. They’d only popped in because it was drizzling outside. They had two children with them aged 4 and 7 and all of them loved this museum.
If you’re ever in Calais, make time to visit the Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode – it is well worth the small entrance fee and it has certainly joined our list of top things to do on a day trip to Calais.
Open Daily (including Sunday) except Tuesday.Opening hours, address details and exhibitions information on Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode Calais website (English language version).
See our YouTube video of the loom demonstration at the Calais Lace Museum.