Clothing in the Kempen countryside

Fashion designer Tim Van Steenbergen designed a collection of practical, contemporary clothing for the Bokrijk team. He took inspiration from pieces of historical clothing and photographs. Historical project bureau Geheugen Collectief sought out the stories behind those garments. What did people in rural Kempen wear a hundred years and longer ago, and what did these garments mean to them?

Bokrijk has about 2,000 items of historical clothing and textiles. Some are only fragments, while others are well-preserved, complete pieces. A large part of the collection comes from the countryside. It dates mainly from the end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. Occasionally, we focus our research even further back in time.

The historical research produced three study reports, which you can download here. The first report describes rural clothing, regional dress, fashion and the meaning attached to clothing in the past. What were the functions of clothing? How was clothing dealt with? The second report acquaints us with a number of garments that men wore in the countryside: the “kiel” (a loose, wide-sleeved, linen, smock), the “faas” (a flat cap with high band), braces and the handkerchief or neckerchief. The third report shows us what the rural woman wore: a skirt, an apron, mother’s hidden purse, a shawl and a regional style cap.

Rural clothing and regional dress

Rural clothing is the clothing worn in the countryside. Regional dress or regional clothing is the clothing that was worn by a group from a certain region or village. It is regional clothing. Historians have in the past paid a lot of attention to regional dress, and little to the more general country clothing.

What did ordinary people in the agricultural communities of Kempen and Flanders wear? We know very little about it. Their clothing was rarely kept, and the items that were saved are often in poor condition. Fortunately, we can resort to old photographs and collections such as those from Bokrijk.

Most clothing in the Bokrijk Collection is not regional dress. The smocks, shawls and long skirts, for example, were not unique to Kempen. People wore similar garments all over Europe. Although, regional headwear items, which were worn in specific regions, were unique.

Who wore what?

In the nineteenth century, among the Flemish farming population, men’s outer clothing comprised trousers, aprons, waistcoats, smocks, jackets, and caps or hats. Women wore skirts, aprons, jackets or blouses, cloaks, shawls and caps. The clothing in earlier centuries was colourful with lots of blue and red. However, black became prevalent in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In addition to everyday clothing, rural men and women usually had one set of festive clothing. The ‘Sunday’ clothing had to serve for both parties and mourning. The Flemish farmer often wore a shiny blue smock on Sundays. The woman wore her special regional cap on Sundays.

When did fashion first arise?

There is discussion about when the phenomenon of fashion first arose. At the end of the Middle Ages, a lot changed in the world of clothes and in the way clothing was dealt with. From the sixteenth century, the supply of fabrics and styles increased enormously. There was a much faster introduction of new styles, although that was slower than today. The wealthy, in particular, had access to an ever-increasing variety. This applied to both their clothing and other consumer goods, such as furniture and crockery. They became consumers. The material way of life of wealthy people became more varied, fashion-conscious and less sustainable. Articles became cheaper, which meant they could be replaced more often, or they were less durable and had to be replaced more often.

Trend setters and followers of fashion

The nobility set the tone for fashion. The bourgeoisie copied them and followed, slightly behind them. And finally, the workers and farmers began to follow the style after that. The very poor did not follow fashion in any way, all their energy was invested in survival.

Ordinary citizens, workers and farmers did not follow all the new trends. Ordinary citizens could not afford everything, and “dressing above your social position” was not done. Farmers and workers had other concerns. Even if they had been able to afford the prevailing fashion, they would not have much use for it. After all, most fashionable clothing was designed for people who did not do physical work. Consider the corsets, decorative shoes and excessive decorations of those times. Someone who worked on the field or on a loom could not wear it. The fashionable men’s clothing was slightly more comfortable than that for women but it also hindered the freedom of movement. For that reason, we find, at most, just a few elements of fashion in the farming population's Sunday clothing.

Regional dress evolving

To us, regional costumes come across as old-fashioned and timeless. They are indeed grafted onto old traditions but they are not static. Even regional dress evolved. New generations added new elements to their costumes. The headdress became larger or smaller, the skirt became longer or shorter, the trousers became wider or narrower, etc. Young people varied the decoration, patterns and colours, or they wore an existing garment in a new way, a hat, cap tilted forwards or backwards, or a shawl worn differently. In other words, they were also trend or fashion conscious. Several regional dress variants were worn at the same time, with an older generation sticking to an earlier style while the young generation tried something new, just as they do today.

Regional dress disappearing

In the eighteenth century, a lot of European regional clothing was on its way out. In Flanders and the Netherlands, it began to disappear from the middle of the nineteenth century. That process did not happen at the same pace everywhere. Some regions modernized faster than others did. The older generation held on to it longer than the younger one. Men ‘civilized’ faster than women did. Women continued, steadfastly, to wear their regional caps for a long time.

There are several reasons for the disappearance of regional costumes. The countryside became increasingly less isolated from urban culture, thanks to better roads and means of transport and modern means of communication. Rural residents became more informed and mobile. Their view of and contact with the wider world broadened. Fashionable clothing became more available, thanks to cheaper machine-produced clothing and better distribution channels. That method of producing clothes gradually replaced self-sufficient, local clothing production. Besides increasing contact with the city, the villages themselves changed. Secularisation of society, diminishing impact of faith on daily life, and individualisation had an influence on villagers’ clothing.

Would you like to read more?

In the Geheugen Collectief study report that you can download here, you will find more information about rural and regional clothing in the past.