Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Dutch National Skirt

The Dutch National  Skirt – A Means to Remember

Patricia L. Cummings

After the end of World War II, a woman in the Netherlands, Mrs. Mies Boissevain-van Lennep (1896-1965), a feminist, a social activist, and a resistance fighter during the war who gave refuge to Jewish children and others, instituted a program whereby Dutch women would construct patchwork skirts in a type of Crazy Patchwork style. Each skirt would be composed of pieces of cloth that had a memory associated with them. Perhaps, the fabric had been part of a shirt or other garment of someone who had been taken away by the Nazis, never to have been seen again.

A National Movement Inspired by a Scarf

The making of skirts became a national movement.  The women were asked to embroider the date “5 mei 1945” on the front of the skirt (the date represents Liberation Day on May 5, 1945). Each skirt was required to have a set of triangles to serve as the bottom hem and those were to be embroidered with the date that the skirt was worn for either special family occasions or public events such as the Queen’s Jubilee or the National Memorial Day.

Dutch National Skirt with embroidered dates on the orange triangular hem to indicate when the skirt was worn.

For her efforts of harboring refugees, Mrs. Boissevain was arrested in 1943 and sent to two different German-run concentration camps. At the first camp, her laundry packet from home included a patchwork scarf that had been made for her. After seeing how much joy the colorful patches brought to her fellow inmates, she was inspired. The scarf was confiscated but lived on in memory and is credited with being an incentive for the Dutch National Skirt.

Registry of Skirts Established

Mrs. Boissevain paid a high price for her political/social activities. Her husband was also arrested and sent to a camp where he died, and her two sons and a nephew were executed. After the war she was not dissuaded from further involvement in causes.  She encouraged the establishment of a National Registry of the skirts. Of the 4,000 skirts made, perhaps no more than 100 exist, some in private collections and some in museums. An Moonen, a Dutch textiles and quilts specialist, has one from her aunt. Each skirt was stamped, numbered, and given a card.

The skirts were seen as a means of healing and comfort to families, and a way to provide the solidarity needed for reconstruction of the country.

Names of Skirts

They were called feestrok (Festival Skirt); or in Holland, were also known by three different names which, translated, mean “skirt of life,” “liberation skirt,” or “orange skirt.” The latter is a reference to the House of Orange from which the royal monarchs (Queen Wilhemina and her daughter, Princess Juliana) had descended. When skirts were brought to the United States to be put on display in 1948, the name “The Magic Skirt of Reconstruction” was assigned them, according to Jolande Withius of Amsterdam, Netherlands in her research paper “Patchwork Politics in the Netherlands, 1946-50: women, gender and the World War II trauma [1].”

Interpretation of Embroidery of One Skirt, Seen Online

My Dutch-born friend, the late Hendrika van Dongen, who lived through World War II in her parents' basement, subsisting on tulip bulbs during the “hunger winter of 1944-1945,” spotted a lion Dutch Coat of Arms. The initials “J” and “B” stand for Queen Julianna and her husband, Bernat, who was German-born.  Van Dongen said there is a reference to church bells being silent (not tolling), probably because metals were confiscated to make armaments for the combatants. There is an image of food parachutes that dropped white bread in the center of the city. [Parachutes can also represent English troops being dropped from the sky]. The words “Bent but not broken” are embroidered on that particular skirt, used to describe a flagpole, as well as the attitude of the Dutch people, she said. The word “mof” is slang and means “rotten German” and is a word her father, a school teacher, used a lot. The skirt was formerly visible on an online website. quilting Entry

At an antiques market (in the Netherlands?) some years ago, a woman named Marianne found a patchwork skirt with the embroidered date of 5 mei 1946. She recognized the item as being a Dutch National Skirt. She knew the background of the woman who started the movement, and to accompany a post on quilting, she added a photo of her [Mrs. Boissevain] when she was on tour in New York. [During her U.S. tour, she compared color to vitamins, calling them “a life necessity,” according to Withius' paper.]

The other photo she posted was of two skirts in a museum. She states “Mine is very similar to the right one. The patches are sewn on a foundation, the seams are folded inside and with white thread and a straight stitch is sewn very close to the edge. (It wasn’t made by a quilter…),” she adds, “But I’m very happy to have found this piece of history.” Marianne did not divulge what her nationality is or in what country she found the skirt.


The trend of making the skirts lasted only a few years. There is one skirt that was collected by the Fries Verzetsmuseum that was made by Mrs. De Jong-Bronwer. She embroidered very violent and tragic scenes and included the Nazi swastika. The museum owns two of these skirts. At least five or six museums in the Netherlands are saving Dutch National skirts in their collections. They are a reminder when women joined together to have one “voice,” that of harmony. They even sang the “National Skirt” song that has three verses some of which say, “Plait into your skirt the pattern of your life,” and “Shape your skirt a together connectedness.” Yes, connectedness and solidarity were the watchwords of the Dutch National skirt phenomena. The skirts are all but forgotten today but they continue to show the importance of textiles in our lives.

No comments: