What did a farmer’s wife wear?

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's wife 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.

What did a farmer’s wife wear?

Flemish and Walloon rural women rarely wore a single-piece garment. They wore a skirt, one or more petticoats and a blouse, a jacket or a shorter, open jacket. We do not know much about their underwear, it probably consisted of a combination of a hip and waist corset or a full body one. Their apron kept their skirt clean. They wore a hooded coat or shawl to keep warm. They almost always covered their heads, with a simple work cap, or regional style headwear but the latter was usually only for Sundays.

The head always covered

Rural women almost always wore something on their heads until the First World War. This was often regional headwear comprising a cap decorated with lace, tulle with all kinds of pleats and pins. Each region had its own variations on the theme. In the Kempen women wore a lot of “vleugelmutsen” (wing caps) or “trekmutsen” (pull-over caps), often decorated with hundreds of small pins. Making those caps required real craftsmanship. Farmer families used a local female professional for that, the “mutsenmaakster” (cap-maker).

The regional cap was an expensive piece. Firstly, it was impossible to make yourself. Besides that, it had to be washed every few weeks and them remodelled or “made up” again. This had to be done by a professional too, and that cost money. That is why many farmers’ wives were very careful with their caps. They only wore it on Sunday. But women who did not have their cap on did not walk around bare headed. They wore a simple work cap or hood without decorations. Even those in mourning wore a simple cap, no matter whether they were rich or poor.

From India to Paris

Around 1800 Napoleon bought a luxurious present in Egypt for his wife Joséphine. The Pashmina he gave her was a scarf made of fine cashmere wool. The scarf had been imported to Egypt from India. These scarves had been woven since the fourteenth century in Kashmir, a region in the north of the Indian subcontinent. Originally, it was a luxurious clothing accessory for men. The scarves were made from a superior quality of wool, originating from the underbody hairs of a mountain goat from the Central Asian high mountains.

Joséphine was initially not very enthusiastic about the gift. It is said that she claimed it was “ugly and expensive”. However, the scarf fitted well with the Empire dresses that were in fashion at the time. These were very light dresses made of white or light coloured cotton or linen, on which the scarf draped beautifully. Joséphine became a fan and even collected a whole set of these expensive but irresistible accessories. As Empress, she was a trendsetter. Other wealthy women wanted to have anything that Joséphine had. The scarves were therefore in high demand among the European nobility. And eventually they ended up in the Kempen countryside too.

From Paris to Bokrijk

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the cashmere scarf from India was fashionable among European nobility. It was extremely expensive. Transporting it to Europe was cumbersome and the weaving process was labour-intensive. It took two weavers at least one year to make one scarf. That is why European entrepreneurs did not waste any time before trying to produce cheaper imitations. They manufactured the designs mechanically, with cheaper materials and simpler patterns. The success of the imitations was overwhelming. The cheap versions allowed a large part of the European population to follow the fashion. Now rural women in the Kempen could afford such a scarf too.

The scarf was already out of fashion for wealthy women by the mid-nineteenth century. It remained in vogue longer in the countryside. Women wore it as a shawl and it was also popular for use as an interior textile. Perhaps there was one at your grandparents’ home, used on the sideboard or piano? Thanks to that custom, many examples were saved. That is how some nice pieces found their way to Bokrijk

Mother, what is in your purses?

Before the handbag was introduced, many women had “purses”. They were tied around the waist with ribbons. You wore them between your skirt and your apron or, more often, between the skirt and underskirt. Rich women had extravagantly decorated purses. Poorer women made their purses from surplus fabric or an old skirt. But sometimes they also chose to decorate their purses, doing so with their own embroidery. No matter how beautiful and large they were, the purses did not catch the eye.

Farmer’s wives kept items such as their money safely stored in there, and even food, a knife, scissors, tobacco, keys, a handkerchief or other utensils. Men did not wear such purses. They used the pockets in their trousers, waistcoats or jackets to keep their things safe.

The apron

In the past, almost all working women in the countryside and in the city wore an apron over their skirts, from farmers’ wives and factory workers to nannies, maids and nurses. The apron had several functions, but the most important thing was to protect the clothes underneath from dirt. The apron, however, was not only working clothing. In many cases, it was also a fashion item. Not only women from the lower classes wore them; the bourgeoisie did so too. The apron was a style accessory for them. Unlike a work apron, a Sunday apron had to be whiter than white, crisp and nicely pleated, and ironed. Since many garments could only be washed with difficulty, it was often a matter of pride to keep certain items of clothing as clean as possible, and that included the handkerchief or regional headwear too.

Would you like to know more?

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