Catwalk – An Amazing Fashion Exhibit at the Rijksmuseum

Catwalk – An Amazing Fashion Exhibit at the Rijksmuseum


I was fortunate to be in Amsterdam this week and see Catwalk, a glorious exhibit of clothing from the 17th through mid-19th centuries at the Rijksmuseum. Oh my goodness! It was the most impressive display of clothing of any sort, let alone historical pieces, I have ever seen. Take away the clothes and the display and mannequins are themselves works of art. Add the clothing … I have no words. I cried. Yes, beautiful clothing apparently has the power to turn me into a watering pot.

I cannot do a comprehensive review of the entire exhibit, but I want to share a few gowns of interest from Jane Austen’s era. Keep in mind, these are from The Netherlands and France, not England. Forgive my photography. I did as best I could while being overwhelmed and teary eyed. Descriptions are copied from the exhibit.













Dress (Mantua) with Train, c. 1759

“On her wedding day in 1759 Helena Slicher wore this gown with a skirt no less than two-meters wide! The skirt is supported by large panniers, side hoops around the hips. Unusually, this dress combines two different types of court dress. The bodice with a ‘tail’ follows the English court dress. a mantua, while the loose train was popular primarily on the Continent.”

Note that the wallpaper in the room where this gown is displayed mimics the embroidery pattern of the gown.






Redingote or Great-Coat Dress, c. 1786-1789

“The origin of the redingote lies in long men’s coats with a cutaway front, the riding coat.It is a striking example of the influence men’s fashion exerted on women’s fashion. A redingote for ladies consisted of an overcoat or gown, and a loose skirt in a contrasting colour, which enhanced the coat-like effect. Olive green and pale pink were a popular combination at the end of the 18th century.”









Gown, c. 1790-1810

“At the end of the 18th century the wide skirts became narrower, and the waistline was raised to under the bosom. The narrow sleeved were so long that they extended to the middle of the hand. They were set in far at the back to a typical lozenge-shaped panel, the shape of which is emphasized by ornamental stitching in a colour that contrasts with the red silk of the dress.”



Full Evening Dress with Train, c. 1808-1812

“Cornelia Johanna van Nellesteyn-Steengracht may have worn this evening dress to a reception given by King Louis Napoleon at the Palace on Amsterdam Square. The embroidery pattern of the skirt makes on think of gowns worn at the court of Napoleon I. This dress, however, is not embroidered with gold, but rather gilt-brass thread – which would have been looked down upon in France.”




Wedding Gown with Train and Rosettes, 1812

“Margaretha Johanna Weddik Wendel wore this gown when she married Baron Hieronymus Nicolaas van Slingelandt on 25 November 1812. It follows the early 19th-century fashion of full evening and court gowns, which usually had a tulle ruffle at the neckline and sleeves, and a decorated hem. The decoration consists of a satin border, pleated ribbon, roses, and loose petals.”



Ball Dress of Blonde Lace, c. 1815-1820

“Lace had been out of fashion since the French revolution. However, it regained its popularity when Napoleon decreed it should be worn at court in 1804. This dress is made of hand-made silk bobbin lace known as ‘blonde’. The name is derived from the often light colour of the silk from which it was often made. The material is very fragile, and dresses made of it are exceedingly rare.”



Wadded Coat (douillette), c. 1820

“In French douillette means soft, smooth, and comfortable. These wadded coats became fashionable in the Netherlands from the 1820s. This one had a matching ornamented belt at the back. The origins of the puffed sleeves, filled and gathered by means of vertical bands, is found in the 16th century.”



Riding Habit, c. 1826

“The tailoring of the wide skirt of this riding habit takes account of the fact that women rode side-saddle. The skirt was extra long because the legs, naturally, had to stay covered while riding. Sewn along the inside hem are fabric loops, with which the skirt could be pulled up to facilitate walking. The tight-fitting jacket offered little freedom of movement.”

There is so much more to see! If you can get to Amsterdam before May 15th, this is an exhibit not to be missed. You can also see details on several of the costumes at the exhibition website: How I wish they had published a book for the exhibit! Then I could study all the pieces at my leisure.

Whenever you might make it to the Rijksmuseum, be sure not to miss the Waterloo room, dominated by a massive painting of the battle scene with Wellington at it’s focus. The room also houses a lot of Napoleon memorabilia. And then there are the Rembrandts and Vermeers. Mustn’t neglect the Old Masters. Oh! Or the library! It’s amazing! I have been to the museum twice and have yet to see a fraction of the collection housed in this magnificent building. It would take two or three days to tour it thoroughly. Someday …

Rijksmuseum Library
Rijksmuseum Library
Probably Napoleon's Pistols, used at Waterloo. Rijksmuseum.
Probably Napoleon’s Pistols, used at Waterloo. Rijksmuseum.
Pianoforte (1808) belonging to Hortense, wife of King Louis Napoleon.
Pianoforte (1808) belonging to Hortense, wife of King Louis Napoleon.

33 Responses to Catwalk – An Amazing Fashion Exhibit at the Rijksmuseum

  1. Simply gorgeous! Thanks for sharing your photos with us Alexa. But the one that really got me going was the photo of the library! I’m not one for dressing up (sitting in my jogging bottoms typing this on my mobile phone) but will drool uncontrollably over books!

  2. Museums are so much fun! I love to see things like old clothes, because I am always curious about how people lived and what they ate, wore, etc. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  3. I can barely summon words! Beautiful! Stunning! And to say I’m envious is an understatement. And not just of the Catwalk exhibit but the Waterloo one as well. Let me live vicariously through you!

    • Rose – live away! I really feel like I went to bed one night and woke the next morning in paradise. I still sometimes wonder when I will wake up and find it all an illusion. I’m trying to take advantage of my opportunities whenever I find them, and you are more than welcome to join me for the ride. I spent my share of time living vicariously through British Janeites – going to the Bath festival, spending weekends at fabulous estates. Now I get to share the wealth. This exhibit was tremendous.

  4. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! I think my favourites out of these samples is the redingote (love the colour and the cutaway design) and the wedding dress with the the train and rosettes (love the flowers).

    • Hi Leenie! As I mentioned to Laura below, I wanted to walk out in that redingote. It is fabulous! Maybe the piece in the exhibit that I most coveted, next to a 1950’s Lanvin cocktail dress.

  5. Lovely dresses, very impressive! I think the embroidering alone merits being amazed! And all hand made! Thank God I don’t have to wear them though. Wonderful! Thanks for sharing!

    • They are truly works of art. Too bad the artists were all anonymous! Here the credit goes to the wearer, not the creator. As the exhibit moved into the more recent passed, of course the designers were noted, but all those poor ladies who spent their lives embellishing such gorgeous clothes that they never got to wear (never even touched, as it was the custom to wear gloves so as not to damage the fabric)! There names are lost to history.

  6. Can you imagine how many seamstresses it took to make some of those garments? Back in the day I made my own clothes. I took 4 years of home economics [that’s Family and Consumer Science these days] and, after looking at the haute couture in your photos, there is NO WAY I could make anything like these garments. WOW!!! Thanks for sharing those with us. That is one of the reasons I so enjoy the classic 1940s version of P&P because of the unusual costuming. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Jeanne! I used to do historical costuming, and just sewing the dresses by hand (I tended to dress the lower orders, so I didn’t have to embroider too much) takes forever and a day. I wish I had a picture of a gown on display from the 1830’s. Even the mannequin’s hair (made out of ribbons – it was really cool!) was dead on 1940 P&P.

    • I’d like to wear them, just not all the time. But I’m one of those grown ladies who still plays dress up. I once had a very authentic moment at a Renaissance festival when I nearly passed out because my corset was too tight.

    • Hi Rebecca. My daughter and I have been walking through doorways sideways, as a joke. She thinks it’s hilarious. I wish they would have shown the panniers, even more that they would have discussed how much the things weigh.

      Of course, women today still do awfully uncomfortable things in the name of beauty.

  7. I am in heaven looking at these pictures of things I will never see in person! Thank you, thank you for taking the pics and sharing them with us, Alexa. Like Stephanie I would have to be dragged out of the museum. 🙂 And if I could pick one thing it would be the riding outfit! I can only imagine how much work went into all these clothes.

  8. They would have to drag me out. These are the places I can spend weeks. Really. Amazing photos. The incredible detail on the dresses is staggering. Just imagining the woman hours that went into sewing it…whew. So gorgeous. I just want a modern version of the blonde lace dress and the navy wadded coat. =D And then that LIBRARY…le sigh Thanks for sharing!!

    • I’m thrilled you enjoyed it, Stephanie. While walking through, I turned to my sister at one point and said, “Think of all the women who went blind embroidering this.” Staggering is the right word. It’s truly incredible.

  9. Oh Alexa how lucky you are. I love fashion museums. I have seen the exhibitions at the V&A in London, the Assembly Rooms in Bath and Shambellie House in Dumfries and loved them. That one looks amazing so thanks so much for sharing.

    • It’s a pleasure to share it, Glynis. I loved being at the exhibit with members of my family, but how I wished for a Janeite to share my degree of awe! This post is the next best thing.

    • I was so overwhelmed by the magnificence! The hours of labor that went into the production of almost every item was amazing, from outrageous court dresses to WWII era wedding suits fashioned from window curtains. It was heavenly.

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