Fashion at the Dutch royal court


This is a video from the municipal museum in The Hague. It says about itself:

15 September – 2 December 2007, Gemeentemuseum The Hague.

Unbelievably long trains, glittering gold and silver embroidery, pastel-coloured ball gowns with costly lace from the Belle Epoque… The exhibition Hague Court Fashions sheds a fascinating light on the court culture of a bygone era using items of clothing from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

This Friday, to the municipal museum in The Hague.

In this big museum, there are various temporary exhibitions apart from the regular collection.

One of the exhibitions going on there now is about fashions at the Dutch royal court in The Hague.

Well … err … royal court … originally, The Hague is not a royal city.

It never officially became a city. In the Middle Ages, in theory the highest political power were the German emperors. These were far away though; in practice, power rested with the counts of Holland. They granted some villages privileges to become cities; as the counts might profit from increased economic activity in places with free citizens. However, in The Hague village, the counts themselves lived. They did not want to give the local residents the same rights; as a municipal council of free citizens might become a countervailing power to the counts’ power.

Not only The Hague never officially became a city. It originally did not have a royal court. It had the court of the counts of Holland. In the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries, the county of Holland was absorbed, first by the dukes of Burgundy, later by the kings of Spain. Their representatives for Holland were called stadhouder (viceroy).

As Holland and other Dutch provinces revolted against the kings of Spain later in the sixteenth century, the country became a republic. There still were stadhouders: officials, no longer under the king of Spain, but under the representatives of the Dutch bourgeoisie (“regenten”).

The stadhouders, however much they would like to be, were not kings like elsewhere in Europe. They had the title of prince: because they were sovereign princes in the tiny statelet of Orange in France. They were not princes of the Netherlands.

Still, like the rulers of small principalities in Germany or Italy, the stadhouders tried to imitate royal courts, like in Versailles in France. Usually, the stadhouders had more money than those petty German, Italian, etc. princes, but less than the kings of France. The language at the The Hague court was French; or, rather, a strange mixture of French and Dutch, called ‘Hagois’.

After 1789, the French revolution ejected the Bourbon dynasty from the throne. The dynasty of the princes of Orange fled from advancing revolutionary French troops to England in 1795. After Napoleon’s military defeats in 1813 and 1815 had brought the French royals back, the powerful governments in Europe wanted a Europe wide counter-revolutionary restoration. Not only were the Orange dynasty brought back to The Hague. In 1815, they also got the title of king, which they did not have in the times of the Dutch republic.

This royal court tried to imitate bigger courts in big European capitals. As the exhibition in the The Hague museum shows, there were very complex dress and other etiquette rules. The extensive exhibition shows many aspects of especially dressing, especially female dresses. While the exhibit goes from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century (not much textile from before the eighteenth century survives. From the whole sixteenth century in the Netherlands, only one complete piece of clothing, a boy’s, survives. It is property of the municipal museum), there is an emphasis on the late 1800s. There is much information on the ladies in waiting of Queen Emma, baronesses Henriette van de Poll and Elise van Ittersum.

They used to travel around with thirteen ensembles of clothes in two big suitcases, as one might never know if a special occasion would turn up where one dress might be appropriate according to court rules, but another one might not. This at a time when many poor women in the Netherlands were asking themselves whether they had even one set of clothes warm enough to survive freezing winter days.

However, the glory of the expensive dresses at court turns out to be temporary. Many of the dresses could not possibly be shown at this exhibition on mannequins. Some of these were shown, laying in display cases, as time had done much damage especially to silk and especially to backsides. Also, many dresses which still could be shown on mannequins, had turned pale yellowish from their original white or pastel colours.

Not mentioned at this exhibition was the shock which the Dutch royal court suffered in November 1918. Pieter Jelles Troelstra, the Dutch Social Democrat leader, then proclaimed a revolution. To counter this, counter-revolutionary paramilitary forces, the “Burgerwacht” were founded. To recruit for these forces, emphasis was on love for the monarchy (even among non socialists, love for the royal family was mostly stronger than for the capitalist economic order). One of the commanders of those Burgerwacht forces was Baron van Ittersum, a relative of royal lady in waiting, Baroness Elise van Ittersum.

Later, in 1922-1923, the first Dutch fascist party was founded by admirers of Mussolini: the Verbond van Actualisten, VVA. When, in July 1925, this party participated in the Dutch general election, its leading parliamentary candidate was Baron van Ittersum, a contact of other fascists who had been in the Burgerwacht under him.

The VVA got few votes then. Later, it was succeeded by other fascist parties, of which the most successful became the National Socialist Movement, NSB, of Anton Mussert. Like the VVA, the NSB originally was extremely pro monarchy. However, when Mussert’s German role model Adolf Hitler invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, and the royal family fled to England, the NSB suddenly dropped its monarchism.

The exhibition about Hague Court Fashions is extensive, showing clothes for dancing, for hunting, for travel, for high level mourning, for low level mourning, etc. etc. But it does not show enough background; some of which I have tried to provide here.

5 thoughts on “Fashion at the Dutch royal court

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