The farmer’s wardrobe

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 a farmer wear in rural Flanders one hundred and fifty years ago? You will discover the answer to that in the exhibition at Bokrijk and on this website. You can download the Geheugen Collectief study report here too.

The farmer’s wardrobe

A century ago, the Flemish farmer only wore his best suit on Sundays, to go to church. During the week, he wore long underpants and a vest, with a pair of trousers and a shirt, a jacket or waistcoat, and usually a smock. The smock kept his clothes clean during fieldwork. He usually only had a few pieces of his weekday garments. He wore them until they were really worn out. Holes were repaired and garments that had become too small were altered to fit. He always wore some form of headwear, a cap or a variation on it. In the Kempen, this was often a “faas”, a high-band cap with a round top.

The smock

A smock is a loose hanging garment of linen or cotton with wide sleeves. Every farmer had one. He wore it during his work, over his other clothes. A smock protected you against the weather and kept your clothes clean. Besides the typical blue smocks, there were also grey-white and black ones. But a smock was not restricted to use as work clothing. The Kempen farmer would wear his best blue smock on Sundays. It had to be ‘stiffly ironed and shine’.

A smock was thus primarily an item of working clothing, a bit like an overall or a dust jacket is today. The smock was not an item of regional dress but a common item of clothing like a T-shirt today, which was just as characteristic of the Flemish farmer as it was of his French or Italian colleague. In the nineteenth century, farmers throughout Europe wore a kind of smock, as did cattle traders, butchers, carpenters, smiths, captains, painters and schoolchildren. In most areas, the smock disappeared before the First World War. It soon became part of the folklore costumes of a number of different guilds.

The “faas”

Nowadays, only a few men wear headgear. That was very different in the nineteenth century. Men wore all sorts of caps and hats. A great number of men from Kempen wore a “faas”, a black, silk cap typified by its high-band and flat top. The “faas” had many names, including a “mutske met een klippeke” in Flemish Brabant to a “potske” in Turnhout. The height of the headgear also varied. For example, a farmer from Wuustwezel would wear a high “faas” for his wedding. After 1900, the “faas” gave way to a regular cap in the cities. The countryside followed in the nineteen-fifties.

The handkerchief

The handkerchief became popular in Belgium in the eighteenth century. A farmer who liked to sniff tobacco (snuff) kept his nose or clothes clean with one. Snuff is actually a very dirty substance! Previously, farming folk blew their noses with their fingers. While wealthy people had handkerchiefs much earlier, and they were richly decorated with lace or embroidery. Farmers’ handkerchiefs came in different colours and shapes. Floral patterns are one example. The first cotton handkerchiefs were imported from India. From the end of the eighteenth century, Europeans copied the Indian handkerchiefs and their patterns.

The red neckerchief known as the “bollenzakdoek”

If we imagine our image of the typical Flemish farmer, we see a man in a blue smock with a black “faas” on his head, a red neckerchief with a white pattern and clogs on his feet. This image has crept into our collective memory, but it is not accurate. For example, we rarely find the red neckerchief in the literature of the time, or in sources or historical photographs. The classic red neckerchief only figures prominently in twentieth-century postcards for tourists.

In reality, the variety of neckwear was much greater. They wore all kinds of textile articles around their necks, including scarves, ties and neckerchiefs in a range of colours and shapes. Where does that image come from? The red neckerchief became more popular after the Belgian Centenary in 1930. The red neckerchief was used as a symbol of the rural history of Belgium during the celebration of the first one hundred years of the Belgian State. Many different guilds and folklore groups then wore the iconic red neckerchief as a sign of identification. It also became popular among miners. Bokrijk also played a role in popularizing the garment. For years, employees in the Open-Air Museum wore the red neckerchief.

Underwear becomes an accessory

Braces are a clothing accessory worn by men to keep their trousers up. Etiquette prescribed that you should not see a man's braces. After all, they were part of his underwear. Visible braces were considered common. It was associated with the working class. Braces were not part of a Flemish regional dress but men in the Flemish countryside wore them from the middle of the nineteenth century.

Forerunners of braces as we know them were occasionally worn at the end of the eighteenth century. During the French Revolution, revolutionaries wore something similar to braces to keep their trousers up. Wearing braces only became widespread in the nineteenth century, when trousers with high waistbands came into fashion. Belts were not convenient with that type of trousers. Braces then offered an alternative way to keep your trousers up. There were a number of braces manufacturers in Flanders too.

Would you like to read more about it?

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