Liberation skirts: how post-war upcycling became a symbol of female solidarity

skirt made of colourful patches of different cloth

‘Weave the pattern of your life’

In the aftermath of World War 2, after the liberation of The Netherlands from German occupation in May 1945 and the festivities that followed, many Dutch women made special commemorative skirts, called ‘nationale feestrok’ or ‘bevrijdingsrok’ in Dutch – the latter translates as liberation skirts in English. The idea behind this festive garment came from Mies Boissevain-Van Lennep.

During the war, for her resistance activities during the occupation, Mies had been imprisoned and sent to a concentration camp. Shortly after her arrest in 1943, she was sent a scarf made of textile patches from garments of relatives and friends, which brought back special memories.

After the war, Mies was a member of a women’s group that decided to create a garment to celebrate the rebuilding of the Netherlands after the war. For this, the liberation skirt had great symbolic value.

The commemorative skirt had to meet certain conditions – the old but colourful patches had to be sewn on to an older skirt so that the original background disappeared and a new colourful piece of clothing was created. Today, we would call it upcycling.

The hem had to consist of equal triangles with the date ’5 May 1945’ and the dates of national holidays on which the skirt was worn sewn into it. The wearer could also wear the skirt on other important events or celebrations and commemorate those events on their skirts.

Those creating a skirt were to ‘weave the pattern of your life into your skirt,’ as a song composed in honour of the idea put it.

Processing the war experience with solidarity

The philosophy behind the patchwork skirts was, on the one hand, that the use of the fabric remnants represented the reconstruction and renewal of the Netherlands, while on the other hand, that women could process their own war experiences during the crafts.

Wearing the skirts together would reinforce the feeling of solidarity among women. The skirts looked alike, but each was different. The idea was that you should not be able to see differences in the social position of the wearers.

A liberation skirt only became a ‘National commemorative skirt’ if it was officially registered. In the end, around 4,000 skirts were registered. The highlight of the phenomenon was in September 1948, in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of the reign of Queen Wilhelmina when hundreds of women wore their commemorative skirts for a parade in Amsterdam and across the parliament courtyard in The Hague.

An international initiative

Because of the success of her initiative, Mies travelled through the United States in 1949 at the request of The Netherlands Information Bureau (NIB) for a propaganda trip about ‘Woman’s life in the Netherlands of Today’.

She visited 27 states and spoke at many occasions always putting the commemorative skirt and its philosophy at the centre of her talks. She sincerely hoped that the ‘Magic Skirts of Reconstruction’ (as they were called on one occasion) would become an international symbol for female values around the world. The American media at the time, however, described her work solely as a peace initiative and neglected the aspect of female solidarity she promoted.

Although the skirts did not become a worldwide phenomenon as Mies hoped, and the interest in The Netherlands waned after a while, this does not mean that the commemorative skirt disappeared completely.

Skirts were known to be worn on Liberation Day up to the 1980s and in 1981 a provincial museum in Ede organised the first exhibition around the ‘Nationale Feestrok’. During the following decades, the commemorative skirt found a place in the collective memory of Dutch society through the work of memory institutions and researchers.

Feature image: Liberation skirt, Flipje and Streekmuseum Tiel, CC BY

20 thoughts on “Liberation skirts: how post-war upcycling became a symbol of female solidarity

  1. Thank you for this very interesting and moving story. I am an active Crazy Quilter in the USA, and had never heard about the Liberation Skirts until it was posted today in the Crazy Quilt Divas FaceBook page.

    1. Strangely enough, I have been sewing patches of fabric onto a boiled wool sweater during my Covid -19 confinement. It will always be meaningful to me as a reminder of the time, I live in a small town in New Hampshire, USA

  2. This is a significant and timely article and I thank you for it. What an inspiration for those of us committed to up cycling for the planet. This adds the additional element of female activism. Kudos, from Gerry in Tucson, AZ, USA

  3. Was fascinated by the random patchwork bed quilt I had as a child, but I have never heard of this movement. Thank you for this interesting piece. I’m from South Wales, UK.

  4. Wonderful article – and a touching gift that started it – the patchwork scarf that related to friends & family. It’s why letting go of clothes after a bereavement is so hard – they hold memories and reminders of occasions shared. Commemoration is a celebration of that life – and in this case – Liberty. Thanks for writing / researching this.

    1. My auntie wanted all my father’s clothes gone, donated to a second hand store! I couldn’t put them in the black garbage bags! I asked my son to be able to do it! He didn’t really want to be in his house! Gave him something to do! I regret that! The disposal of all his clothes! All those good shirts! Some hadn’t been worn! I had thought could cut them all up to make a quit! I wish I had taken all of them, the clothes! A trialling time, emotionally! My father happened to of died on the 4th of May! Day before the 5th! 1930 he was born but my mother was born in 1946!

  5. Thank you for this shared true emotional “Liberation skirt”. Young women almost forgotten to choose sewing or this part of garment It will touch all women who used to “have all day want” and “waste their time on original handcrafts made products”. Re using is a good solution and also self made products always have more spirit and makes a joy at least for their creators.

  6. One of those seemingly small events from history that actually have great significance. Thank you for expanding my knowledge.

  7. Today my young grand daughter is wearing a skirt made from ‘cabbage’; scraps of cloth left after a garment or quilt has been cut from yardage. I acquired a huge bag of strips and scraps from a Quilt Shop at a Sewing Meet some years back; at that raffle there were probably 150 Prizes and as tickets were drawn you chose your PRIZE off the piled tables. Her skirt is made up of 30 or so tapered strips sewn together; each one different but themed with the use of mainly Red Fabrics. She is very fond of it because it is so unique, and so different from what her peers wear. Plus when an adult friend of hers saw hers she was so enarmored that she asked if I could make one for her too! SO there are two “Ladies” wearing Stripe-y Skirts now. I doubt this garment will get passed on to her “Cousins”; children of friends who are that crucial year or so smaller. Soon I will have to go through my stash to make her a new one; a size bigger, well longer!

  8. This is very interesting. I have made quilts from men’s ties and shirts. One I did for a friend from her father’s ties and shirts. I also made wall hangings using a beloved aunt’s clothing for her nieces. Tee shirt quilts are memory pieces also. Mollie in Maine USA

  9. Terima kasih blog ini memberikan info menarik yahg dibutuhkan oleh orang banyak.
    Teermasuk saya juga dapat manfaatnya.

  10. Reckon we should start a Post Covid 19 commemorative skirt project. One triangle on hem for 2020 Covid-19. Then can add other sig events to other triangles on the hem. And an annual day for wearing skirts in public -starting from the day the WHO lifts the pandemic and annually thereafter- worldwide. Shared by social media, to public and to special interest groups – medical, essential services of all kinds, research, sewing, craft, historic, re- & upcycling, family, friends, etc etc. Let’s start a world-wide clear remembrance of what happened

    1. This is a great idea Penny. See the comment above for a link to a project proposed in Amsterdam. We’d love to see what you make. Hope you are safe and well.

  11. Thank you for such a meaningful story that inspires us to make some new memories. My Grandma made patchwork quilts for her Women’s church group for charity with the patches being from the scraps of material from the dresses of my sisters and mine too. She made me one when I went off to college and another when I married. I can still sit and point out the squares from my Easter frock or my sister’s sundress. I am a big girl now – on the far side of seventy, but the quilt is a sweet memory of more simple times.

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