October 30, 2013

About the "Dutch woman" and the Libelle fashion show

Today, I've got another vintage magazine gem for you: we're going back to the year 1960, through the eyes of the general interest reporter of Libelle magazine. I'll try to translate her story about the style of the Dutch woman and her report of the Libelle fashion show. 

Before we start, you should know that Libelle started in the mid-1950's with fashion shows (I think twice a year). These shows brought the new fashion for the coming season to readers all over the country. It toured for weeks, often visiting as many as five different towns in one week. And the best of all? All the garments on display would be available as patterns either through to magazine itself or via sister publication Regina-Mode.

Last week, I had a meeting with the head of the fabric department of a department store. The man knew a lot about women because he had been in this business for twenty year. This had taught him a thing or two about the weaker sex. He told me some curious things:
"The Dutch woman doesn't like to buy fabric on her own", he said. "They will bring two other ladies along to help them choose. And she only has the courage to buy something striking or daring if she still very young."
Afterwards, I had coffee at a nice little place and pondered about this. I thought that "Dutch woman" was a rather strange type. Who would go and buy fabric with three people? I could picture it: Mary who likes beige, Ann who prefers blue/purple out together with Jenny, who would actually love canary yellow but ends up going home with a piece of beige wool (Mary) and some blue/purple silk (Ann).
"Little courage" we might feel offended by that as well. It's not true either, I thought angrily. Then, my neighbor caught my eye. She was wearing a brown-beige coat, a brown-beige hat, brown-beige shoes and a brown-beige handbag. Her face was beige and her hair was brown. I thought a bit of orange here and there would give her personality. And the lady across from me was displaying a whole range of grey. Grey hair, grey coat etc. Everything was grey. A bit of lilac  would have transformed her into a modest, elderly orchid, I thought. Was this about a lack of courage or a lack of imagination? Or did she go shopping with three people and did that confuse her? After that, I almost choked on my coffee because I suddenly remembered where I had seen such a range of grey before. In London, but that young lady had worn it with lilac-coloured hair!
She was a rather pretty girl, so she could pull it off. I do remember wondering if she never clashed with her clothes though, lilac hair is a bit tricky.
At that moment, a large woman entered the shop with a tiny dog under her arm. She was wearing a blinding, breathtaking suit in bright purple and the dog was wearing a green jacket with white dots. It seemed to hide its eyes behind its long hair in shame. Courage, I thought. Do you see? And why would I even care? After all, there is no such thing as "the Dutch woman" ! Even if you blended women from five different places, at different corners of the country, together, you'd still end up with an incomplete picture.
There was one other thing which struck me in my conversation with the man who knew the Dutch woman so well. He said:
"It easy to point out those women who have imagination! Sometimes, women enter my department who seem to want to eat the fabrics. They would love to touch them all and devour them with their eyes. Then I think: They have imagination! They don't just see the material, they also see the thousand-and-one things they could do with it! The strange thing is that these types seem to pay little attention to ready-to-wear."

I remembered theses things when I attended the Libelle fashion show in Hilversum. I was surrounded by hundreds of women. Elegant ones and sporty ones, some who were fashionable and some who had a simple style, a young woman who was expecting sitting right next to a grandmother who might have fourteen grandchildren already. I thought: Would they all be dreaming of the same things? Are they all thinking: I'd love to have that dress Hilde is wearing but in the fabric of Cherie's gown? Or: That coat of Rita's is what I want, but made up in that red fabric I saw yesterday? Would they all be pondering, considering, picking and choosing, or would they just sit there and watch?

Looking around at a fashion show is fun and you see people in a new way. One of the plus-sized ladies didn't eagerly watch Anita but only had eyes for the very young, very slender baby among the models, Rita. She's looking for something for her daughter, I thought. And a pale, slim and frail woman next to me bent forward with attention whenever a large size was shown. She's working on a dress for her mother, I decided. But maybe I'm all wrong. It's fascinating anyway.
Also funny is the story about the lady behind me. She was enthusiastically writing down pattern numbers and then said with a bit of a shock: "Now I have eighteen! I can't make them all?"
I wanted to turn around and say: "You are a woman with imagination, madam! But please, close your eyes and pick a few patterns to order at random! Your husband would cancel your Libelle subscription if you would try and make eighteen dresses."
I didn't say it. After all, I had picked no fewer than ten designs myself. And I'm painfully sure that only one of those will get made.

She goes on describing some of the designs on display and observing the other visitors. The tone is one which is sometimes patronizing and at other times full of good common sense. I think you get the gist of it  though, from what I've translated.
I'll end by showing you some of the designs which were shown:

This suit was shown a lot in the magazine. It was apricot-coloured. It's a wide jacket with a belt. It's got an extended shoulder with very full set-in sleeves. The jacket is worn with a simple slim skirt.

The two pictures above show two views of they same design. It's a beach outfit with a separate over-skirt.

This was one of several genuine couture designs. Every season, Libelle would buy a toile from a Paris designer (just two a year in the mid-fifties, several in 1960) which gave them the right to copy the pattern and make it available to their readers. (Wouldn't it be great if that was still done today?)

The show included designs for every occasion. Even house wear like this. It's an apron.


  1. Oh, I just loved that excerpt and of course the pictures! She's too right, of course. I prefer shopping alone because I get a much better sense of what I want and what I want to do with the fabric I choose to buy. When I go with friends, even before when I would shop for RTW clothing with friends, I always come away with something I later felt rather ambivalent about at best.

  2. > Every season, Libelle would buy a toile from a Paris designer (just two a year > in the mid-fifties, several in 1960) which gave them the right to copy the
    > pattern and make it available to their readers.
    > (Wouldn't it be great if that was still done today?)

    Through the mid-20th century, some department stores in the
    US used to purchase patterns and fabric "exclusives" from
    Paris couturiers. Society matrons would be invited to fashion
    shows at the department stores. Then they could order the
    outfits made in their size and choice of fabric (from within the
    range sent by the designer specifically chosen to fit the style
    of the pattern).

    You can still sometimes find the clothes in
    vintage shops in the US. They have labels for
    both the fashion designer and a second label
    "licensed to [name of department store]"

    At first, the dressmakers/tailors in the US stores were
    European immigrants. Towards the tail end (~1970),
    Hong Kong immigrants joined the staffs.

    I went to an exhibit near San Francisco a few years
    ago that showed some of these clothes. I think
    there might be a book about this phenomenon.
    It's fascinating.

  3. Unfortunately the man was most likely RIGHT: after all, he had been observing female fabric-buying behaviour 'first hand" for many years! We don't like to think of ourselves as 'sheep" and people are generally hostile to the notion that they "fit a stereotype"-but it's TRUE: "stereotypical" behaviour is a psychological FACT and can in fact be observed in venues such as a fabric store. The "peeing in pairs" social behaviour is a fairly typical example of "stereotypical" female behaviour (I admit i don't know if women do this in Holland, but it's quite common in North America); no doubt this "buying fabric in groups of three' is another example of it!

  4. Such an interesting read (and such gorgeous photos) -- thank you for sharing this! How wonderful to attend a fashion show to choose patterns -- so civilized. My shopping style depends on the purpose. If I'm just browsing for inspiration without the intent of buying, I love going with others to get their views and opinions. But if my intent is to buy, I prefer to go by myself. Weird, I know!