A Lace and Fashion Museum in Calais? Well, yes…all that and more is on display here at the Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode (International Centre of Lace and Fashion). It’s a fascinating and surprising place but it’s not as well known as it should be. Students of fashion and locals get there but few foreign visitors.
You’re really missing out if you haven’t been. The Lace and Fashion Museum attracts people for the fashion element on show, the absorbing history of the centuries-old lace making industry in Calais, and the working machines. So there’s something for everyone from fashionistas to techies.
The Lace and Fashion Museum is housed in a former 19th-century lace factory which has been transformed into a 3-storey museum. It displays haute couture, huge machines, videos of the complex working of those machines and an intriguing history of the industry. It has appeal for all the family.
The History of Lace and Fashion
You walk into the first room, a darkened space with displays and explanations in French and English of the history of lace and fashion. Here you’re taken on a European journey through the age-old industry of hand-woven lace.
The fashions of the past were elaborate and costly. Handmade from rich fabrics, the costumes of both male and female were beyond the dreams of mere mortals. To the sides, in beautifully lit cases, full-size models display the costumes and accessories from the past.
Machines take over
The second section moves onto the mighty 19th-century Industrial Revolution which began in England and changed the world forever. Nottingham in the English industrial heartland had become a world center for its lace and the machines which made it. The British tried to protect the industries that made their country rich. Laws forbade exports of their growing mechanical expertise, and the crime of smuggling the machinery carried the death penalty.
But in 1816, the English mechanic Robert Webster with two other entrepreneurs brought a Leavers, an English lace-manufacturing machine, into Calais and installed it in the Quartier Saint-Pierre-les-Calais. Today the Quartier is part of central Calais; in the early 19th-century it was a separate small village.
You see the changes of styles as the middle classes became wealthy and influenced contemporary fashion. At the same time, large-scale production drove the prices down and fashion was available to all. Lace is a seductive material, both concealing and revealing parts of the body that society demanded should be kept hidden and the French made the most of it. Lace was everywhere – on dresses, skirts, collars, on bonnets, umbrellas and fans. And as dresses were voluminous, that meant a huge demand for a lot of lace.
Working Machines at the Lace and Fashion Museum
Go up to the second floor and the rooms where the huge looms were installed and worked continuously over a century ago. This part of the Lace and Fashion Museum is always a high spot. Demonstrations (in French) show you how the machines work, hypnotising you with their steady rhythm. And from these huge machines that shake the floor and drown out any other sound, comes gossamer-thin lace.
Today these French Leavers looms mean that in the two centers of Calais and Caudry (which made the lace for the wedding dress of Kate Middleton when she married Prince William in 2011), carry the name of Dentelles de Calais, a brand registered with the French Federation of Laces and Embroidery.
Discover how the machines work
Another room has an excellent selection of videos showing all the stages of lace making, from the designers of the patterns to the draughtsmen who drew the designer’s inspiration onto the papers that are then turned into a pattern of holes. The videos are excellent and are subtitled in different languages. It brings home the fact that it’s a complicated industry, time-consuming and involving many skills which are dying out.
Fashion and the Future of Lace
The permanent exhibition finishes with a collection of dresses with machine-made lace. They start with the Belle-Epoque turn of the 20th century fashions, and link everything to the social changes of the era. You see the change from tight corset-pinching fashion to the free flowing designs of couturiers like Paul Poiret whose clothes adorned many an androgynous figure.
World War II had its effects, spelling the end of the golden age of upper class life. The after-war spirit is shown in clothes designed by the likes of Christian Dior with his ‘New Look’. Then come experimental designers like Paco Rabanne.
The Lace and Fashion Museum is not just about the past as you’ll see from the contemporary section. New technologies have brought weird and wonderful ideas, shapes, and creations using different materials to make lace.
The temporary exhibitions go into the lace story in greater depth. They are always worth a visit and concentrate on contemporary fashion. A couple of years ago I went to see Haute Dentelle which had an astonishing collection of dresses from fourteen fashion houses from Balenciaga to Chanel, Gaultier to Maison Margiela.
Like many museums in France, the Lace and Fashion Museum in Calais always surprises, always intrigues.
Lecoanet Hemant: The Orientalists of Haute Couture will take place in 2022. Check the website for details of this and other exhibitions.
Cité international de la dentelle et de la mode
135, quai du Commerce
Tel: + 33 (0)3 21 00 42 30
Open April 1-Oct 31: Wed-Mon 10am-6pm
Nov 1-Mar 31: 10am-5pm
Lace-making demonstrations Weekdays 11.30am, 2.30pm, 3.30pm, 4.30pm. Weekends 10.30am, 11.30am, 2.30pm, 3.30pm, 4.30pm
Closed Jan 1, and 15 days in January; May 1, Dec 24, 25
Admission Permanent collections + temporary exhibition adult €7, under 16 years and over 65 years (on proof of age) €5
Temporary Exhibition €4, under 16 years and over 65 years (on proof of age) €3
Free for children under 5 years old; 1st Sunday of every month
Bar/restaurant Les Petites Mains offers good daily dishes and all day snacks. Restaurant open from April 1-Oct 31: 10am-6pm; Nov 1-Mar 31: 10am-5pm. Café open 10am-6pm.
Shop is open Wed-Mon. It has a good selection of books, cards and items decorated with lace patterns as well as scarves, gloves, jewellery and more. I’ve always found excellent gifts here.
It’s always worth looking out for old lace at the antique and brocante sales in France.
There plenty more to see in Calais, a city I love but which many people ignore. Check out the Guide to Calais which gives hotels, restaurants, more attractions and…the dragon.
How to get to Calais from the UK
More to see in Nord-Pas de Calais
More attractions in the area in the Nord-Pas de Calais section