Written by Mark Smith @amancalledmark
Check Facebook for pictures of your Dutch friends’ office parties this festive season and the anthem ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ may spring to mind. While cousins in the UK are turning themselves into hard-drinking, conga-dancing Christmas trees complete with sequins and wacky reindeer knits, Nederlanders consider it perfectly acceptable to wear jeans to a work celebration. Despite the valiant efforts of advertising billboards entreating them to smarten up, the Amsterdammer’s work-do game plan – if there is one – involves blending in, as opposed to shining forth.
Come 25 December, if you’re giving or receiving an example of famed ‘Dutch design’ – a tubular aluminium Van Moof bike, say, or a Zig-Zag Chair by iconic architect Gerrit Rietveld, or an adhesive lamp from Amsterdam’s Droog – you can bet it will be characterised by a quiet simplicity of form that belies the thought and expertise that’s gone into it.
Across the board, this aesthetic aversion to ostentation is encapsulated in the well-worn phrase: ‘doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg’ which approximates to ‘just act normal, that’s crazy enough’. Cécile Narinx, editor-in-chief of luxury fashion bible Harpers Bazaar had the proverb in mind when she authored her new book ‘Dit boek gaat niet over mode’ (This Is Not A Book About Fashion), a revealing romp through Dutch wardrobes. ‘The typical woman from North Holland has one handbag which sees her from day-to-night and she lives in jeans because practicality is everything,’ says Narinx. ‘In the lower, Catholic, part of the Netherlands, it’s a different story. There it’s not considered quite so suspicious to spend money on your appearance.’
The embarrassment of riches
As with so many aspects of Amsterdam life, to understand the city’s relationship with luxury we need to sail back to the Dutch Golden Age, when the city was the amazon.com of the world. Seventeenth century English statesman and essayist Sir William Temple shaped a view of the Amsterdam psyche which remains nigh on indelible more than 300 years later when he wrote, ‘They are the great masters of the Indian spices and of the Persian silks, but wear plain woolen, and feed upon their own fish and roots[…] They send abroad the best of their own butter into all parts, and buy the cheapest out of Ireland or the North of England, for their own use. In fine, they furnish infinite luxury, which they never practise; and traffick in pleasures they never taste.’
In retrospect, it seems fair to say that there’s more than a touch of confirmation bias in Sir William’s depiction of the Amsterdammers as sackcloth-wearing, penny-pinching bling pimps who traded saffron all day then went home to nibble gratefully on a turnip stamppot. In the popular imagination, at least, Dutch attitudes to luxury have long been elided with Calvinism, a doctrine which swept the Netherlands during the Protestant Reformation and which prizes sobriety, reserve and thrift. Wealth, we are told, was considered inherently corrupting in the Dutch Republic.
Obviously, the unprecedented influx of merchant money in Amsterdam would have presented a moral hazard to a populace reared exclusively on the virtues of piety and parsimony. But, as historian Jan de Vries argues persuasively in his essay Luxury and Capitalism, Luxury and Calvinism, it’s likely that the role of Calvinism in Golden Age Holland has been misunderstood. According to De Vries, John Calvin himself shared with the Christian Humanists of his age an relativistic view on the subject of wealth, writing: ‘Let all men live in their respective stations, whether slenderly, or moderately, or plentifully, so that all may remember that God confers his blessings on them for the support of life, not for luxury’. In essence, a bit of extravagance is fine, as long as you keep your priorities in perspective.
Golden Age couture: The original normcore? Photo: Rijksmuseum
It’s interesting to consider this when enjoying the famous still life paintings in the Rijksmuseum. The 1664 Pronkstilleven (literally, ‘ostentatious still life’) by Adriaen van Utrecht, with its rich array of fruits, meats and table-wares would have reminded viewers of the fabulous prosperity of their republic – a land where even common workers and fishermen could enjoy fresh meat, vegetables, fruit, eggs and cheese. But there are other paintings – for example Vanitas Still Life by Jacques de Claeuw – in which flowers wither, insects devour the fruit, and lavishly set tables are in disarray. They reinforce the transience of material goods and the superior weight of moral considerations.
One of those considerations was the elevation of society as a whole, and as the Dutch East India Company (VOC) enriched the merchants, a great many artists in turn benefited from the patronage of those who – in keeping with Calvinism – believed that wealth should be used to support meaningful cultural endeavours. As homes filled with Delft pottery there was a boom in cabinetmaking. Shipbuilding skills were put to new use in the construction of splendid (if narrow) houses, causing the Papal Nuncio to Cologne, Pallavicino, to remark after visiting a near-complete Canal Belt that ‘only a nation that does not squander its wealth on clothes or servants could have succeeded in doing all this with so little fuss.’
Even as decor became more refined, daily life for the most part remained simple in the Dutch Republic. Beer was the main beverage for the well-to-do merchant’s family, and his house would have fewer servants’ rooms than its equivalent in England or France, on account of taxes that discouraged domestic help.
According to Thijs Boers, curator at the Amsterdam Museum, ‘clothing in Amsterdam was less elaborate than in the Hague, which was a court city full of ambassadors for whom it was important to dress up.’ He notes that the rich burghers of Amsterdam – with no real nobility to emulate – would favour black attire. ‘But it had to be the right kind of black – the expensive one,’ laughs Boers. Merchants could signal their success, but they were discouraged from lording it over the less fortunate, who always loomed nearby. ‘It’s such a small country, and Amsterdam is so densely populated that everyone can see how everyone else is living,’ says Boers.
Boers has been researching the archive of the Cromhouthuis on the Herengracht (which recently reopened as a museum) and was astonished to note that Johanna Blesen, wife of the wealthy Godefridus Cromhout, had a funeral costing 23,000 guilders in 1738, ‘when even two or three thousand guilders would have been considered an extravagant sum’. Boers notes that, despite the giddy expenditure, Blesen was, in the main, preoccupied by the desire that her funeral should be elegant ‘but not too much.’ It was, you could say, her ultimate humblebrag.