Incredible Lace from Calais


Ever since the lace museum opened in the city of Calais in northern France six years ago, I have been meaning to visit.  When it was announced that the museum was hosting a special exhibit entitled “Balenciaga, Master of Lace” featuring over 75 dresses made of lace by this renowned couturier, I made definite plans to go to Calais.

Calais is known to the world with reference to the famous Rodin sculpture, “The Burghers of Calais”, which portrays six leading citizens who agreed to be hostages after the surrender of the town of Calais to the English king Edward III in 1347 after a seige of eleven months.   The group of statues was commissioned by the City of Calais in 1884.


According to French law only twelve casts may be made of sculptures by Rodin.  The first cast of the six figures is in the garden in front of the city hall of Calais. Other casts can been seen in museums around the world, like the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Hirschhorn in Washington, D.C., as well as in the garden of the Rodin Museum in Paris.

The TGV fast train from the Gare du Nord in Paris takes a little over an hour and a half to go to the station Calais/Frethun, which is the last station before the TGV enters the tunnel under the Manche to go to England.  So one has to get off there and take a local train to the station Calais/Ville.  Although there are some TGV trains that go directly from Paris to Calais/Ville as a final stop.   In August the French railroads offer a special price in first class if you make a round-trip on Saturdays.  As my friend and I had not planned to stay overnight anyway, this suited us just fine.

The nicest thing about Calais is the free mini-bus that runs every ten minutes through the center of town and connects the fishing port (Matelote) to the shopping district, the train station and the theatre/opera house.  The mini-bus is painted yellow and blue and is called the Balad’in, and it stops at distinctive yellow and blue square signs.  You can get a detailed map of Calais (very helpful) and an outline of the route of the Balad’in mini-bus at the Tourist Office (go to your left at the exit of the train station, go around the traffic circle, and the T.O. is among the shops on the right hand side of boulevard Clemenceau).  Everything would be even more nearly perfect if the Balad’in mini-bus also went to the lace museum.   The nearest stop is “Alhambra” and then a ten minute walk via the rue de la Pomme d’Or.

The official name of the lace museum is “The International Centre for Lace and Fashion of Calais”.  The centre has an ambitious program of ateliers, workshops, conferences and exhibits, as well as a specialized fashion and textile library, open to all.  The architect distributed the museum space in an authentic lace factory dating back to the 19th century — this gives the place a special atmosphere.  The permanent collection of lace and clothes is installed on two floors.  The first floor exhibit has been assembled with taste and care to explain and charm the casual visitor who may know little about the history and techniques of lace making.   In the cases with the precious laces are reproductions of historic paintings showing monarchs and members of the nobility decked out in splendid outfits embellished with the particular variety of lace shown in each cabinet.   The dresses and shawls from the previous two centuries are marvels of color and good taste.   Lace was obviously a status symbol in past centuries, and lace making centers, like Calais, prospered.


A long bench runs along one side of the exhibit space, and there are information pages on the history of lace as styles, economic exchanges and trade patterns changed over the centuries.   I wish I had had more time to read these information sheets (in French, English and Flemish).    The finishing touch (or the cherry on the cake) of our visit to the museum was a demonstration of actual lace making one of the authentic machines, with further explanations by the expert technician who oversaw the process.  It was amazing to see delicate lace made on a huge monstrous metal loom that weighed several tons.


The couture creations in the Balenciaga exhibit featured several kinds of lace, from the most delicate Chantilly lace to heavy re-embroidered lace embellished with beads.  Often Balenciaga was inspired by portraits by Spanish painters Francisco de Goya y Lucientes and Francisco de Zubaràn.   Right out of a Goya painting of a Spanish  duchess is a Balenciaga designed black lace dress with a pink satin ribbon as a belt.


This exhibit is under the patronage of legendary French couturier Hubert de Givenchy.  The last day to visit the Balenciaga show in Calais is August 31 — or take a trip to the Basque country in northern Spain to see it at the Balenciaga Museum in the Palace Aldamar in Getaria.

The other interesting places to see in Calais are located within the city center — like the tall white lighthouse, the medieval lookout tower (tour de guêt), the statue of General and Mrs Charles de Gaulle and the flamboyant City Hall — and easily accessible on foot.  The Notre Dame church has a massive belfry and defensive towers on one side, and is worth looking at.


France For My Friends is an occasional column written by long-time Paris resident Alexandria McGill.