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Traditional costume - no longer 'fashionable' but still popular

Volendam's just one of many regional outfits

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

To this day there are many North Americans, and even Dutch people, who think that the Volendam traditional dress is the Dutch national costume. The black skirt, striped apron and jacket, the shawl and the ladies' lace cap are famous all over the world and immediately associated with the Netherlands. Dutch marketing organizations may be blamed for this image because they often dress, for example, cheese party hostesses, souvenir dolls and young girls on biscuit tins in the Volendam costume. Dutch folk dance groups often dress in those costumes even if their repertoire is non-Volendam in origin.The Netherlands has a great variety of regional costumes, many of which are on display at the Openlucht Museum near Arnhem. Unfortunately for tourists, the traditional costumes are being worn less and less. The notable exception to this rule is the tourist office, some souvenir shops in high tourist traffic locations, historic villages where visitors have a good chance to meet women dressed in Volendam costumes. There are not many women left who still wear their traditional costume on a daily basis. According to one woman at a tourist information office, who herself dressed in Volendam costume, most of the Volendam people stopped wearing costumes back in the sixties, sold their jewelry and changed over to modern clothes. On special days, regional costumes are still being worn.


The traditional garb came into existence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nobility and clergy dressed differently from merchants, fishermen or tradesmen and their wives. 'Clothes were then - as they still are today in some ways - an indication of the wearer's position in society,' so writes Constance Nieuwhoff in her book 'Traditional Costume.' 'The clothing often was entirely adapted to the occupation of the wearer. The men of Volendam and from the former Zuiderzee-island Urk, who were fishermen, needed clothing that left their legs and feet free, was warm and water and windproof, because they had to work on small boats in a cold climate.'

The men of Marken - another former Zuiderzee island - also earned their keep with fishing. They and their wives and children lived in great isolation as well. Explains Nieuwhoff, 'Because there was no work on the land at home and the opportunities to move elsewhere were extremely limited, a great deal of time was spent on decorating clothing and household goods. The Marken costume is by far the most decorative of all Dutch regional costumes. It is covered with all forms of embroidery. The almost total isolation for so many centuries was undoubtedly the reason why Marken's entire population was still dressed in traditional costume as late as 1930. When the Zuiderzee was closed off from the open sea, a large number of Marken's men were pretty well forced to find other work, causing many to look for a livelihood in the busy harbours of Amsterdam. This change in employment meant the men no longer wore their regional costume on an everyday basis.' When Marken was linked to the mainland by a diked-causeway, its dress and the town's quaintness became tourist attractions.

In contrast to earlier periods, regional dress is now only worn in a small number of places in Zeeland, on the northeast edge of the Veluwe, and in North Holland in Marken and Volendam. It is not known how many people still wear their traditional dress, but officials at the Openluchtmuseum - an estate where dozens of historic buildings where rebuilt brick by brick, representing a cross section from many area's across the country - estimate the number at approximately 4,000. The majority of these are elderly men and women.

There are a number of reasons why regional costume is worn less and less. Isolation in the Netherlands is certainly a thing of the past. Highways and railroads reach into every area; even Zeeuws-Vlaanderen will have a vastly improved access within the next decade or so. Modern life with its telephone, radio and television has penetrated even the most secluded villages. The economy and society have drastically changed with fewer men taking up traditional professions such as farming and fishing. Instead, the men found work in offices and factories, where other dress standars apply. The same was also true for young women upon graduating from high school or college. Once they were used to contemporary clothing, they rarely dressed anymore in traditional costume. In her book Never Again in Civies, journalist Pauline Broekema describes how schoolgirls would sneek into different clothes at a friend's home before going out for the evening.

Staphorst is the only town in northern Overijssel where traditional dress has retained a measure of popularity. A spokesmen of the local Farm Museum estimates that approximately 2,400 men, women and children (out of a total population of some 7,000) continue to wear their traditional and colourful costumes. In comparison with other such places in the country, this percentage is rather substantial. Much to the man's chacrine, the numbers have been declining for years. 'When the girls find a job, they are inclined to wear contemporary clothes. For instance, a young woman wearing a nurse's uniform during the day will not likely change into her traditional costume in the evening. I think it is a great shame, but even if I protest against their practice, they quickly tell me I can't make them to. Besides, I usually don't wear a traditional suit myself either.'

Staphorst's costume is more colourful than any worn in Drenthe. While Staphorst uses plenty of jewelry, its costume is notably less exuberant than of those in Zeeland. Of all the regional costumes wearers, Staphorst's women are the only ones who wear knee-high (or just below it) skirts. Staphorst women usually make their own outfits and use both contemporary and traditional materials. 'They are not walking monuments, who wear the same thing as their mothers and grandmothers did. Changes are even made in the traditional designs,' according to the museum spokesman.

The weaving loom

Staphorst's women are well provided for as far as their textile materials are concerned. Years ago, the area's municipal council purchased a weaving loom so that the materials could be made locally. The loom is located at the museum, where it is also used for demonstrations and work shops on the area's costumes. Visitors to the Museum Farm get detailed information about the ornaments in the clothes, colours, materials and how certain garments are worn. Staphorst - it once was a peat bog but is now prosperous and known for being a largely strict, orthodox Calvinist place - attracts large numbers of curious visitors without promoting itself. In general, Staphorst does not mind the attention but values its tranquility on Sundays when they rather would not see hordes of visitors. Tourists at times disturb Staphorst's church going people when trying to take video footage or pictures. And some of Staphorst's people lost their jackets with silver adorned buckles when they were removed from the coat hangers in the back of the church during worship services.


Books about traditional costumes often state that Staphorst's women do not want to be photographed. This is not entirely true. In general, they do not mind to if someone takes their picture as long as first permission was received. They certainly do not want to see themselves on a postcard later.

Although traditional costumes are not as popular for daily dress, the clothes themselves continue to be cherished by many people. All over the country activities are held which help keep alive the last vestiges of this cultural heritage: traditional festivals, fishermen's days and street festivals. Demonstrations of traditional costumes _ they can not be called fashion shows _ remain hugely popular.


On the last two Wednesdays in July and August, it is extremely busy in Spakenburg and Bunschoten, because this is when the central Dutch towns' traditional festivals are held. With visitors from far and wide, mingling with a colourful mix of people wearing their local dress, it are those wearing contemporary dress who become conspicuous. 'Everyone wears the traditional costume: women, men, children, even teenagers,' observes a local tourism official.

As is happening elsewhere, the Spakenburg/Bunschoten costume is just not worn as often as before. The men hardly wear it at all. But their outfit is less striking than that of the women with their black trousers, smocks and clogs. The custome's most distinctive feature is the checked neckerchief. The women here are proud of their costume and will readily pose for a picture when asked to do so. During the festival days, visitors receive plenty of opportunity to have their picture taken in costume.

A few Spakenburg entrepreneurs put up stalls wherever market days are held, mainly selling fish, cheese and fresh baking. Dressed in their costumes, their stalls are a special attraction to shoppers making the rounds past the stalls. It is costume that has become the identity symbol, the business card of the entrepreneur.

Fashion show

In Walcheren, part of the island province of Zeeland, the Association for the Walcheren Costume is a very active group. The association has collected many authentic dresses, not just to put in a museum, but to wear and show them to the public. Some 40 volunteers run a periodic fashion show where they feature a great variety of traditional costumes from 1800 on til today. The group shows the clothes and the symbols which were used when going to fairs, funerals, church, work and weddings.

Not all the clothes belong to the association, some costumes are the property of individuals. Not every costume and ornament one sees is original. For example, the gold jewelry, the cap brooches and head ornaments - for obvious reason - have been made from gilded copper. The authentic gold originals have become extremely costly to obtain, but the group still aims to add these to its collection sometime in the future when the funds are available for major acquisitions. Some of the garments are not original either. Occasionally, something needs to be copied which belongs to the chores of the group's president. The need to copy can have very practical reasons. For example, a century ago costume-wearers were much smaller than they are today, causing problems to tall Dutchmen and women who want to help out by showing local costumes. While making things yourself is not at all difficult - it's all straight seams - it is a different matter to find original materials.'

A distinctive feature of Zeeland's costume are the large white lace caps. It is striking to see that Protestant women in the former islands North and South Beveland wear shell-shaped caps, and Roman-Catholic women the square-shaped ones. To learn more about dress and tradition, the Zeeland Museum at Middelburg maintains a large collection of traditional costumes.


In Walcheren only women still wear the traditional costume. Estimates are difficult to get, but experts suggest there are about 900, primarily in the smaller towns Westkapelle, Arnemuiden and Domburg. Men only dress in traditional costumes during tilting contests. The Netherlands has almost as many museums displaying them as there are regional costumes. Almost every province has a couple of local museums with collections of costumes. In addition to the many smaller museums, the Openluchtmuseum in Arnhem probably has the most extensive collection of costumes. To promote the rich variety of Dutch regional costumes, the Museum organizes an annual National Regional Costume day. On a Saturday in June the regional costume associations attend the Openluchtmuseum event, presenting their traditions along with song and dance for all to see. Dutch costumes are worth promoting. Its history come alive.