Haute Bordure at the Fries Museum

The museum will finally be allowed to open its doors on 5 June 2021!

Luckily the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, despite of Covid-19 could receive media who want to report about the collection. I managed to make an appointment for Friday 2 April 2021 to see their newest exhibition “Haute Bordure“. Whether you’re interested in fashion, textiles, embroidery or royalty, this is a great exhibition to visit. Not too big, not too small, with a huge variety of items on display, classified in the themes luxury, technique, identity, the white thread – all showing a mixture of items from various centuries -, followed by a huge room full of the most wonderful dresses full of stories It was a real treat to be able to walk through their exhibition nearly alone – I was shocked to figure out I nearly spent two hours there – and to be able to finally do something. Thanks so much!

My pictures can be found on Flickr.

The exhibition

Haute Bordure takes you on a tour through four centuries of handmade embroidery in Dutch fashion, with as starting point the collection of the Fries Museum itself. Where embroidered clothing was still the preserve of the church during the Middle Ages, the 17th century saw wealthy citizens with beautifully embroidered dresses, shoes and bags. Colourful flowers decorated clothing, both for men and women, in the 18th century, while in the 19th century women loved dressing gowns decorated with Japanese embroidery. Until today clothes are embroidered, often with machines, but also with the hand.

Embroidery used to be a serious profession, first of men, later also of women. There are hundreds of different stitches and techniques. It doesn’t only mean luxurious materials like gold thread, beads, sequins and pearls, but also craftmanship and hundreds of hours work, which doesn’t make the pieces cheap. Embroidery makes you stand out from the crowd and the colours, patterns and motifs are a unique way to express one’s individuality. Embroidery is of all times, and for everyone, certainly not oldfashioned. It has a long tradition in fashion.

Nearly 150 garments and accessoires are on display in the Fries Museum, all from Dutch collections. From gold-threaded shoes from 1620 to a spectacular catsuit by Jan Taminiau, from men’s cardigans from the 18th century to dresses from the 1920s, they all show embroidered details. The exhibition includes designs of contemporary fashion designers like Claes Iversen and Jan Taminiau, who not only use old techniques, but also use new materials and techniques. Also on display are garments with white embroidery on a white background, often used for baby clothes, christening gowns, wedding dresses and ball gowns. In between there are some wonderful portraits and photos of people in richly decorated clothes, like Catharina van Liauckema from 1622 or Geertje van Scheltinga from 1635. You will also see some detailed pictures of embroidery on the partitions.

The artworks in the exhibition are fragile. Each time they’re moved, is bad for their quality. You’re not allowed to stand on the platforms, you’re not allowed to touch the items on display. The conservator of the exhibition, Eveline Holsappel, told me that they didn’t want to put the dresses behind glass. The fragility of the items on display also means that you might find the exhibition a bit dark at times, but it didn’t bother me at all. I was already too glad, that the glass was missing, which so often makes it more difficult to have a good look.

Photo & Copyright: Fries Museum, Leeuwarden
Royal dresses

For me the main reason to visit the exhibition were of course the royal dresses on display. Yes, you read it correctly: four (or rather five) royal dresses, representing five Dutch Queens. There is an evening gown from the Queens Wilhelmina, Juliana, Beatrix and Máxima, all hand embroidered, three from the Koninklijke Verzamelingen Den Haag (Royal Collections The Hague), one from the collection of Queen Máxima herself, and a court train possibly created for Hortense de Beauharnais, from the Centraal Museum in Utrecht.

Hortense de Beauharnais

Let’s be honest, the first item is a bit questionable, but not less grand. It is an enourmous silk lavender-coloured court train with embroidery of ivory coloured chenille and pearl coloured beads from around 1809-1810, that is possibly from the possession of Hortense de Beauharnais, stepdaughter of Emperor Napoléon I. She married Louis Napoléon, who 1806-1810 was King of Holland.

Like in France ceremonial court dressing at the Dutch court was based on rules. The lenght of the loose train and the 26 centimeters wide embroidery, while the rules said no more than 10 centimeters, might be a clue that the train could only be worn by the Queen herself. On the other hand French ladies appearing at court usually prefered velvet, satin or tulle, embroidered with gold thread. Hortense herself didn’t like staying in the Netherlands, and was often in Paris. If the train is hers, it is well possible she never wore it. It is gorgeous nevertheless.

Queen Wilhelmina

The sustainability is best shown in the dress Queen Wilhelmina once wore. It is also the most vulnerable piece I was told. It arrived complete with her tailor’s dummy, and although the Royal Collections would have prefered to have it behind glass, permission was given to have it on display without. The original dress is a model from around 1911, altered around 1923 by Premet in Paris, France. It is not certain where the fabric for the overcoat was embroidered, at least not in the Netherlands I was told, and it probably even dates from the 19th century. The Queen wore it for the first time on a state photo in November 1912. It really represents craftsmanship and I especially admired the overcoat ..

Wilhelmina loved embroidered clothing, especially her representative gowns, that were often bought in France. This beige piece made of satin duchesse is decorated with a network of gold-coloured glass beads. It also has an overcoat, that falls open at the front, with the bodice sewn to the dress. The overcoat is embroidered with floral motifs and rocaille shapes. The motifs have abruptly been cut off, which shows the gown has been altered. The overcoat originally fell open at the skirt, but had a closed bodice. Likely Wilhelmina wore the gown again for her 25th jubilee as a Queen in 1923, this time in the altered form, as she had gained some weight. Wilhelmina was quite a thrifty and sobre Queen and had her clothes altered quite regularly.

Queen Juliana

Maison Linette in Den Bosch was for years the favourite fashion house of Queen Juliana. Here she also bought the dress, on display at “Haute Bordure”. There was little choice for the exhibition, as few clothing of Juliana seems to have been kept. And it seems this was the only hand embroidered dress that was still there, at least in the royal collection. Juliana was, like her mother, quite thrifty, regularly rewore her clothing and had them altered. She prefered her clothes to fit well, be beautiful and in accordance with the occasion.

The sleeveless silk evening dress is decorated with hundreds of glass, Swarovski crystals and sequins creating wavy lines on both the front and back. The first time she wore it was at a government dinner on the occasion of the upcoming wedding of her third daughter Princess Margriet and Pieter van Vollenhoven. The ice blue embroidery perfectly fitted at wintertime. She wore it afterwards during several state visits, to Ethiopia (1971), Indonesia, West Germany and Liberia (1974). Juliana also wore long gloves and a transparent stole.

Queen Beatrix

Beatrix wedding dress was made by Maison Linette, as well as her wardrobe for the honeymoon and the dresses of the bridesmaids. Around the time of her wedding she turned to the more youthfull Theresia Vreugdenhil, while her dresses nowadays are most of the time by Sheila de Vries. But the dress she wore on the eve of her wedding in March 1966 at it gala dinner in the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel and on the court ball in the Palace on the Dam is by Maison Linette. I wouldn’t have guessed the colour, thinking it was nude or light pink, but it seems it is light blue.

Photos of the evening dress I saw before don’t do the dress justice. White peonies and soft blue leaves, ferns and subtle seed shapes were made with a machine. By hand then transparent glass tubes or rod beads were embroidered over the ferns. In the middle of the flowers are glass pearls, also added by hand, all after the dress itself was already made. The dress unfortunately is damaged slightly on one spot, but you will only notice it when really looking carefully. The dress also shows how slim Beatrice was at the time. It probably doesn’t represent the fashion we know Beatrice for, but it is a gorgeous dress.

Queen Máxima

Queen Máxima herself selected the evening gown by Jan Taminiau, and conservator Eveline Holsappel is quite happy with her choice. The museum had requested an embroidered Jan Taminiau dress of her own choice. Already exhibited previously at the Jan Taminiau exhibition in Utrecht in 2018 I had seen it before, but it remains a wonderful dress. Made in 2015 it was already worn by the Queen several times and it is a precious pieces that likely will be preserved.. After the transport to Leeuwaren the tailor’s dummy was dressed by Máximas own lady’s maid Jolanda ten Brinke, who already works for the Queen for years.

Being around 1,78 metres tall and having about size 38, Máxima can wear about everything. She likely discusses the designs with the designer who has to create them. The embroidery on the selected dress is inspired by the Japanese Room in Paleis Huis ten Bosch in The Hague, that was created around 1789. The silk wall coverings have a beige background and have been decorated with hundreds of applications of flowers, plants and animals in brocade, damask and velvet. One can for example see peacocks, cranes, irises and camellias.

Like the wallpaper Máxima’s dress is beige-coloured and covered with branches full of leaves, cherry blossom, camellias and peonies. But you can also discover birds, such as a pheasant and a crane. The transparent top layer of the dress is of organza. The flowers and animals were first hand painted on the organza and then decorated with glittering beads and spirally twisted threads of gold. The skirt has a small train, the body of the dress is left blank. I could watch it for hours, but unfortunately there is no way to get much closer to the dress and discover all the details.

In case Queen Máxima would like to have a look at the exhibition: “She is very welcome”, conservator Eveline Holsappel told me. And I am sure that also counts for other members of the family and Princess Beatrix.


Unfortunately it doesn’t seem that museums in the Netherlands soon can open their doors again, although many people can’t wait, and also the museum would love to show their exhibition(s) to the public.

During the National Museumweek from 19 to 25 April 2021 about 400 museums in the Netherlands open their doors, digitally. Because of the Covid-19 crisis a lot of museums have developed virtual initiatives to be able to attract visitors. The Museum Association has selected a group of 17 museums as test locations for entrance after a negative Covid-19 tests. One of these museums is the Fries Museum, that can be visited 19, 20 and 21 April, only by people with a Museumkaart. I am not sure if there are any tickets left, but if you live nearby, and manage to show a negative test, give it a go.

The catalogue & events

The catalogue of the exhibition “Haute Bordure” can be bought for € 24,50. The 128-page book, with about 100 illustrations, was written by Eveline Holsappel and Anne-Marie Segeren. The book is written in Dutch, however the introduction is also in English. The book can either be bought at the website of the Fries Museum or at the Publishing House Waanders. You can have a first look here.

The museum has planned several activities in connection to the exhibition. Unfortunately because of Covid-19 it is uncertain what can take place and what can not.

Future exhibition at the museum

From 11 September 2021 until 9 January 2022 the museum plans to show the exhibition “Icons: Masterpieces from the National Portrait Gallery”. Almost 100 paintings, photographs, sculptures, prints and drawings by outstanding artists worldwide, from Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck to Andy Warhol and Marlene Dumas, will be on display, including portraits of Queen Elizabeth I of England and Anna of Hanover, the wife of Willem IV, Prince of Orange.

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