The Feestrok revisited, by an American student

Charlotte Somerville, a student at Hampshire College, MA, USA, visited the TRC on 10 January 2019, and she wrote the following blog:

For my thesis project at Hampshire College, in Massachusetts, I am researching the feestrok (which translates to 'skirt of celebration'), a national initiative that took place in The Netherlands in the years immediately following the Second World War. The initiative consisted of the creation of patchwork skirts – using patches that held special memories for their female creators. These were to be sewn onto an existing backing in any manner that pleased the creator.

The important things to include in every skirt were: a hem of triangles, on which would be embroidered 5 mei, 1945, and every year afterwards that the skirt was worn. The skirts were supposed to be worn every year on May 5th (the day of liberation) and the Queen's Day. However, they could be worn for personal celebrations and women were encouraged to also stitch important personal dates into their skirts. Once the skirt had been made, it was to be sent to a rokkencomité (skirt committee), of which there was one in Amsterdam, to be stamped as authentic and given a registration number. Many smaller towns in which many feestrokken were made set up a committee of their own. More than 4000 skirts were registered, although it is likely that many were made, as many women did not register their skirts.

On an individual level, the skirts were supposed to remind their creators of happy times and inspire hope. They also were a creative way to make a colourful, joyous object at a time when everything from bread to fabric was still heavily rationed. Mies Boissevain-van Lennep, the creator of the feestrok initiative (a resistance fighter and feminist), thought that the skirts could help unite Dutch (and potentially international) women, as a symbol of womanly power, peace, and unity out of difference.

My research on the feestrok focuses on the role that these skirts played in everyday women’s lives. Who were the women who made these skirts? How did they view their skirts (at the time of creation and in the decades afterwards)? What was the actual role of feestrok in life after the war? What was their role in the wider social context of The Netherlands after WWII? What do the differences or similarities between the skirts tell us about the women who made them and the power of the initiative as a whole?

I got in touch with the TRC because of the feestrok housed in the collection (TRC 2011.0001). While there has been some scholarship on the feestrok, which I can access from home in the USA, seeing the actual objects is (as a costume history student) not only incredibly important but also so exciting. The feestrok at the TRC is one of the few that I have located in a public collection that has with it the card registering it with the rokkencomité in Amsterdam, which in and of itself is exciting, as it provides an additional clue about the woman who made the skirt.

Photograph taken at the TRC on 10th January 2019, showing the Feestrok, the handkerchief from the internmen camp at Stadskanaal, and the photograph of Mrs Boissevain-van Lennep.

Photograph taken at the TRC on 10th January 2019, showing the Feestrok, the handkerchief from the internmen camp at Stadskanaal, and the photograph of Mrs Boissevain-van Lennep.

However, my visit at the TRC proved more fruitful still than just the viewing of the feestrok example. When I arrived Gillian Vogelsang, the director of the TRC, asked me to what extent I was studying other examples of postwar textiles. She produced a fascinating handkerchief (TRC 2015.0193), embroidered by the women in internment at Ons Belang, a camp for Dutch collaborators with the Nazi-Germans, set up in Stadskanaal (northeast of The Netherlands) at the end of WWII.

The handkerchief includes two dates (17.5.1945 and 5.9.1945), presumably the dates the women arrived at Ons Belang, and the hand embroidered names of more than twenty women. This handkerchief is another version of women coming together to produce a collaborative textile – one that, like the feestrok (with its dates and memory holding patches), is an assertion of women’s narratives about their lives – during and after the war. In this way, the little cotton handkerchief holds its own juxtaposed with the colourful feestrok. It provides a different story of women during the war and after. The patience and skill that is shown in the applied patches using a chain stitch, and the neatly satin stitched dates on the feestrok, are echoed in time consuming satin stitched autographs of Mijke, Trienke, and Griet v.d. Meulen; Uta Njeper; and Tony Bijland.

I set up the handkerchief next to the feestrok and a press photograph of Boissevain-van Lennep (TRC 2018.3323), also housed at the TRC. What would these people say to each other if put into conversation? It seemed to me that these three items provided a look into the options women were forced to face during the Second World War: collaborate (the handkerchief); resist (Boissevain-van Lennep); or lay low, turn a blind eye, and try to make it through alive (the choice of most Dutch during the war, including, potentially the original creator of the TRC feestrok, though more research must be done to see if her role can be discerned).

My visit to the TRC has given me more insight into the political and personal statements made in textile after the end of the Second World War. I am hopeful that I can include in my thesis an exploration of the conversations about identity, choices, and narrative, that occur between threads, when we put, say a feestrok, next to a piece of fabric autographed by female collaborators.

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TRC Gallery exhibition: 12 - 15 August 2019: Out of Asia: 2000 years of textiles

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