Dutch Patchwork National Celebration Skirts
~ healing the Netherlands after World War II ~
The story begins in 1943 with eight women in an Amsterdam prison cell, all jailed by their Nazi occupiers for acts of resistance. The women were stressed and at odds. The cell stifling and dismal. Then a miracle happened. Somehow someone managed to smuggle a patchwork scarf in with a bag of laundry. Friends and family members of Mies Boissevain had gathered together fabric from her life and created this comforting gift. Her cell-mates admired it, faces glowing with amazement that such a thing had reached their dreary cell. They gathered around Boissevain as she told of each small bit of fabric. This piece of blue silk was from my first ball gown she shared. Other patches were from her children's clothing and clothes of her underground resistance friends. They hung the colorful scarf over their distorted mirror that had made them feel ugly and alone. As a result of this experience became a close group able to support and give each other strength.
Mies Boissevain went through many trials and misery in the years until the war ended. But she remembered the lesson from the scarf and brought women together in support of each other during her internment first in a Dutch and later a German concentration camp where about 90,000 people died. Three times she barely escaped death herself. Her whole family was deeply involved in the resistance. Two of her sons were executed by the Nazis and her husband died in a concentration camp. By the end of the war she was in ill health weighing only 73 pounds but her spirit was not broken. She could have emerged from the war a devastated woman but instead she became a leader in Dutch reconstruction and in guiding the role of women in that effort. She did all this using her great sense of humor and zest for life.1
Because of her determination that reconstruction needed to consist not only of rebuilding but of healing the trauma of the past Boissevain was a key person in this process. She was the only women appointed to the national committee setting the guidelines for future celebrations. Through this position she urged the women of the Netherlands to make a national skirt of celebration, the Nationale Feestrok. Her plan was based on her prison experience with the patchwork scarf. This skirt was to be made of old pieces of cloth to form a brightly colored new costume. Each skirt would be different consisting of bits of fabric that would remind the maker of people and times past. The patches could come together in any way and often they resembled a crazy quilt. The scraps of old fabric representing the often terrible times of the past became something new and beautiful. They represented the Netherlands gathering together its tragic past and creating a new and better nation. There was only one rule. The hem was to consist of plain triangles and women were to inscribe the year on a triangle each year they wore the skirt for an event. Women were also instructed to include inscriptions of important events in their lives. Many also embroidered or appliquéd pictures representing these events on their garments.
The skirts were to be registered and a stamp was designed to show their authenticity and the fact they were home made. It was not desirable that these skirts should be commercially made as one of the prime purposes was the therapeutic healing aspect of making them. Taking the American experience of making quilts she urged women to make them while gathered together so that they could talk of the patches and thus of their past trials. Because they were made by the women themselves many were made by rural women.
In her paper on the connection between these skirts and politics Jolande Withuis gives us a clearer picture of the purpose behind these celebration skirts. "The patchwork pattern was meant to symbolize how society, composed of many very different and loosely connected individuals, could and should become a concordant 'whole'. Just as the little pieces of cloth in the skirt, although completely different in colour, shape, size and structure, together formed a new whole in which the pieces blended together - so Dutch society, after the horrendous war, should become a whole that was more than its parts, to which all the components, new and old, bright and ugly, would contribute their share." 2 As you can see the goal was not to go back to what the nation was like before the war but to create something better. Withuis writes that this early form of feminism espoused the importance of women's rights not because women were the same as men but because they had special feminine traits that were necessary in rebuilding the Netherlands.
These national Celebration Skirts were to be worn on the first National Memorial Day and Liberation Day held on May 5, 1946. But even more were made after that date. Boissevain spoke all over the country encouraging the making of these skirts. In some schools girls were allowed to work on them in their classrooms. Jubilee Day, September, 2, 1948, was the peak day of wearing these skirts. Women marched past the houses of parliament in the hundreds singing about the meaning of the skirts.
Women and girls in villages, cities
One of the most fascinating things about these skirts are the inscriptions and motifs on them. One particularly striking skirt was made by Mrs. J. de Jong-Brouwer who had assisted the resistance in her village as a girl. Almost every patch appears to have an inscription or drawing representing events that occurred in her town during the German occupation. We are fortunate to be able to view this skirt online at Twenty Centuries of the Netherlands.It is estimated that more than 4000 skirts were registered. Sadly few remain today. One can't help but wonder if a campaign was launched much like the state quilt studies in the United States if many more might be found.
© 2004 Judy Anne Johnson Breneman (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author.)
Permission for Use of Pictures.
Online References:1 Boissevain Bulletin: Famous Female Boissevains
learn more about the amazing life of Mies Boissevain
Patchwork Politics in the Netherlands, 1946 - 50: women, gender and the World War II trauma
by Jolande Withuis (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
This extensive article was the prime source for information on this article.
2 ibid. p 295
3 ibid. p 294
20 Eeuwen Nederland - Nationale feestrok
a Dutch site about these celebration skirts and including the photo of the skirt linked above
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