You would not expect to find frivolous ball gowns in a former convent, but the Catharijne Convent Museum in Utrecht managed to combine the austerity of the building with a wonderful show on religious vestments.
The exhibition takes us through the tough years for Catholics in the 17th century to the almost exhibitionist years of the late 18th century. As a result of the transition of the Dutch Republic to Protestantism, Catholics were forbidden to practice their faith in public. This meant that they went ‘underground’ held their services in hidden churches. Behind these closed doors the catholic clergy wore their beautifully decorated caps and chasubles, with which they honoured god.
Patterns like the cross and flowers were created by mostly female embroiderers. These were called ‘kloppen’ (pious virgins) and were women who, with the closing of the convents, could not become nuns anymore. The desire to lead a pious live remained and they lived together in small communities or with their families.
This is a unique phenomena of the Dutch Republic and lasted until in the 19th century convents were reestablished again. These ‘kloppen’ developed their own visual language, with images of female saints and flowers, symbolising purity. They were masters of embroidery with thread, padding and small beads and the exhibition shows truly amazing examples.
They didn’t only produce the most exquisite religious chasubles and caps, the wealthy Dutch merchants also commissioned them to produce all kinds of embroidered products like gloves, dresses and bindings.
There are many ways to ensure your place in heaven (the Renaissance was in fact a result of this desire), but in the 18th century these donations were made in the form of ball gowns. Once the dresses were worn a couple of times, catholic women would offer them to the church. The fashionable flowery patterns made them very useful to be used for chasubles and when they graced the priests, the former dress would be recognised as once worn by the generous donor.
These colourful former ball gowns were certainly not out of place in a church, since the liturgical holidays required specific colours to be worn by the priests. They wore green on normal days, blue during holidays relating to the virgin Mary and purple/pink during/at the end of Lent, Advent and other days of penance.
This exhibition is a feast to the eye not only because of the exquisite garments and the stories they tell, but also thanks to the colourful presentation by MAISON the FAUX. Wendy Fossen 12th January 2024
Photo by Cindy Bakker
Fashion for God continues at the Catharijne Convent Museum in Utrecht until 21st January