Marie Jeanette was born in Jakarta in 1865, where her father worked as an engineer. At 22, she moved with her first husband to the Netherlands and connected with the Amsterdam art scene, where she associated with photographer George Hendrik Breitner and painter Isaac Israels among others.
She later relocated to The Hague, where Jan Toorop painted her against the background of her house in the Van Stolkpark. At the time of this portrait, Marie Jeanette was involved in the Reform Movement which campaigned for loose-fitting and healthy clothes for women.
The movement, rooted in the protest actions of the ‘bloomers’ in mid-19th century America, was not only supported by social reformers and feminists, but also by doctors and hygienists.
Their prime concern was the medical danger of the corset, which prohibited freedom of movement and respiration because of the narrow laces tied around the back, and because of the heavy weight of the crinoline it carried.
As industrial production of loose-fitting wear was still in its infancy, reform clothes were often home-made. The outfit Marie Jeanette is wearing in the painting is probably a bespoke, handmade (and maybe self-made) creation, combining a peachy pink, softly flowing dress with a bolero vest. As with most reform clothing, the design of the dress is very simple and the fabric as well as the trimming are undecorated.
In The Netherlands, the case for the reform dress was ardently pursued by the ‘Vereeniging voor Verbetering van Vrouwenkleeding’ (Association for the improvement of women’s clothing).
The reform dress movement led to Marie Jeanette meeting Toorop, probably during the preparations of an exhibition about women’s labour that took place in The Hague in 1898, for which Toorop designed the promotional posters and catalogue.
Founded in 1899 as a direct outcome of this exhibition, with Marie Jeanette as its first president (and host: most of the association’s meetings took place at her home), the association organised member meetings and published a monthly magazine, boasting patterns to enable women to craft their own clothes. Its membership grew rapidly – from 650 members in the first year to 2,000 4 years later. Though the association was active from 1899 till 1926, by 1902 Marie Jeanette was no longer president.
Yet despite their efforts to make ‘clothes in which we can walk, sit and work; that we can put on and take off without any help; that allow us to keep our tissues, our purse, our keys close; that don’t swipe the floor’, reform dresses would were not fashionable for long as women met a lot of disapproval for their less than flattering ‘bags’.
Furthermore, despite the dress style having originated in a desire to wear more ‘modest’ clothes in a less sexualized silhouette, the reform dress was found to be offensive by many a critic, as the flowing fabric occasionally allowed for a thigh or chest to be seen.
Marie-Jeanette’s legacy lives on today, not only in Toorop’s portrait, but also in the variety of female fashions that flourished following her and the association’s pioneering activities.
By Sofie Taes, KU Leuven