19 November 2019

Why did seventeenth-century Dutch scholars wear Japanese garments?

Foto: Michael Kooren
Photo: Michael Kooren

In the seventeenth century, the Japanese robe became the standard attire for professors and students when attending public ceremonies. What started out as a fashion preference, became an incredibly popular symbol of intellect and social status.

Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). Natuurkundige te Delft, Jan Verkolje (I), 1680 – 1686. Bron: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Portrait of Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek, Natural Philosopher and Zoologist in Delft, Jan Verkolje (I), 1680 - 1686. Source: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Seventeenth-century fashion

The second half of the seventeenth century witnessed a renovation in fashion first associated with the affluent at large, but soon hogged by scholars and men of letters: the dressing gown or Japanese robe. The period 1660-1700 was characterized by a tendency towards slackness. This taste, combined with buoyant trade relations, brought forward a trend of appropriated wide garments from distant lands. Amongst these, the Japanese robe became predominant as an item conjuring up the majesty of a classical toga, yet exuding exotic exaltation; hinting at seclusion, study and domesticity yet also openness, know-how and domination of the world.

Portret van Pieter Groenendijk, Nicolaes Maes, 1677 - 1685. Bron: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Portrait of Pieter Groenendijk, Nicolaes Maes, 1677 – 1685. Source: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

A symbol of erudition

This trend gained momentum over three decades since the arrival of the first Japanese gowns to Europe. The robes became available in the VOC warehouses, together with other exotica. Although these robes were a general symbol of wealth and cosmopolitanism, they soon acquired connotations of erudition. Regents and rich merchants showed them off in their portraits, as can be seen in the digital collection of the Rijksmuseum.

Manuel Llano

Manuel Llano is a part of the History and Art History Department and the Utrecht Cultural History research group. He is currently working on his PhD research on the topic of the social structure of academia in the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth century. His broader interests include book history and early modern philosophical thought, and he is a member of the ERC project Skillnet.