For The Hoodie, Het Nieuwe Instituut and curator Lou Stoppard invited several specialists to shine a light on this multi-faceted garment. Their varied contributions confirm the richness of the hoodie’s stories, deepening the exhibition themes. In this article, art historian Alexandra van Dongen puts the hoodie into transhistorical and transcultural perspective.
In the following piece, Van Dongen (curator of historic design at Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans van Beuningen), guides us through the family tree of hooded garments. From its oldest known origins, she traces the hoodie’s history through the medieval huik or hooded cloak to the phenomenon of modest fashion and contemporary art. She identifies the varying associations of hooded clothing, from social status to modesty to immorality. Whereas the hoodie often speaks of cultural appropriation, Van Dongen finds its roots in a range of transcultural influences - the result of acculturation, a complex exchange process in which groups continually adopt and re-adopt cultural and social elements from each other.
The earliest known written source describing head coverings for women is an Assyrian text from the 13th century BC. Some 3,300 years ago, millennia before the birth of Christianity and Islam, traditions of covering the head already existed in the polytheistic religions of that time. These cultural expressions were shared throughout the Assyrian Empire, which stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and Egypt. Much later, these customs were adopted by Christians, Muslims, and other believers through cultural transfer, each group giving them their own meanings.
The ancient text states that head and body coverings were intended only for aristocratic women; they were forbidden for women of lower social status, prostitutes and slaves. The apparent motivation was to make visible a distinction in social status. The clothing of aristocratic women of that time is reflected in the images we know of the goddesses they worshipped, such as the sculpture of the Akkadian goddess Ishtar (also called Inanna). Ishtar is best known from ancient literary sources, appearing in the most famous myths of Mesopotamia – the Epic of Gilgamesh and Ishtar’s Descent into the Underworld. Ishtar was primarily a goddess of fertility and love, but also of war and sex, and was considered to be the foremother of the Greek Athena. In the Babylonian pantheon of gods, Ishtar was the divine personification of the planet Venus, and her holy city of Uruk was called the City of Holy Women. She was venerated in evocations, prayers, myths and inscriptions.
Women in ancient Persian, Byzantine, Greek and Roman societies customarily wore headscarves, mainly as an expression of social status, but also for religious reasons: clothing traditions also acquired meaning in newly introduced religions that arose in these and other regions of the world. Existing cultural expressions were adopted through complex acculturation processes. If we extend the worldwide phenomenon of acculturation to our time, there is in fact nothing new under the sun when it comes to the current phenomenon of ‘modest fashion’ or the history of the hoodie.
When we look at the history of women and their clothing, there is often a lack of a transhistorical and transcultural approach in which room is left for the context of the common past of all our foremothers. This multiple perspective sometimes disappears from our consciousness and perception, because of fierce discussions on whether or not to wear body-covering clothes and hoodies.
Today, it is more important than ever to look back together at our age-old shared clothing traditions that have been constantly influencing each other since time immemorial.
Wearing head and body-covering clothing is a custom with its origins in a mix of diverse world cultures in which new meanings and images are constantly emerging. The current international wave that modest fashion has successfully deployed worldwide is also developing in the same globalising transcultural way. This fashion trend reconnects across cultural and religious traditions, while direct channels of communication such as social media make the process even more rapid.
Modest fashion revisited
In the exhibition Modest Fashion, staged at Stedelijk Museum Schiedam in 2019, performing artist Rajae El Mouhandiz and I explored, as guest curators, the shared history of the European huik, or hooded cloak, and the North African haik, a woman’s wrap. When Islam came into being in the seventh century AD, the existing cultural tradition of wearing headscarves was continued by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish women alike. At the end of the European Middle Ages, the heads of 15th-century North European Christian women were covered by a wimple, (a type of headscarf, which in terms of shape is strongly reminiscent of the contemporary hijab, covering not only the top of the head, but also the neck and throat, sometimes up to the chin), emulating Moorish-Spanish and Christian examples from the Middle East.
From the 16th century on, headscarves were worn by women of varying social status throughout the Netherlands, and the garment later developed into various forms of local headwear. These lived on in the last expressions of traditional costume in certain regions of the Netherlands, as illustrated by my great-great-grandmother Geertje de Koning-van der Giessen (1840-1926), from Rijsoord in Zuid-Holland. Similar local dress can be seen in other European countries, from French Brittany to German mountain villages.
In the context of the history of clothing, specific garments such as the huik and the haik can almost be seen as a screen onto which the received history of this head and body covering t is projected. We can see how the meaning and image of such fashion items is constantly changing.
The most important thing is that we are always aware of who determined the signification and image formation of the past. Nowadays, more and more women, fashion designers and visual artists take control and determine which images and meanings they want to convey with the clothes they wear.
Huik or haik?
16th and 17th-century paintings from the Northern and Southern Netherlands (present day Netherlands and Belgium), including the city of Rotterdam, depict a striking woman’s hooded cloak made of a long woollen cloth – without sleeves or arm openings that starts at the top of the head and usually reaches to the ground
For my research into the history of the huik, I am especially indebted to researchers Bianca du Mortier at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and Bert Watteeuw, project leader of Rubenssite in Antwerp, who both published articles about it last year in Undressing Rubens: Fashion and Painting in Seventeenth Century Antwerp. I am also indebted to Geeske Kruseman, who has published a new article about the huik in Kostuum magazine:
“In pictures we see a heavy black woollen cloak worn on the head, without closure, often floor-length. The basic shape is a rectangle, with one tightly gathered side resting on top of the head, somewhere between forehead and crown. This huik was a long mantle and head covering in one. It literally protected the woman against cold winters from head to toe, and at the same time formed a black border that nicely framed her face, stature, and clothing.”
More than 500 years ago, there were a number of variants of the huik in use in the Netherlands – the so-called snavelhuik or beaked huik and the knothuik or bun-pommel huik on top of which a hat could also be worn, called a manto. The oldest known Dutch text to contain this word for a woman’s cloak dates from 1317 – it appears as heucken. The related word huque also appears in the French language in the same period, and even older terms such as hu and huve have been handed down from the 13th century with the meaning cap or head-covering. The word huik as a name for a hooded cloak appears to have been anchored in the Dutch language for a long time, but that does not mean that its origin lies in the Netherlands. Transcultural origins seem more probable. Costume curator Bianca du Mortier, for example, describes a potential link with the North African haik, which could have been introduced into Spain during the Moorish period. This should come as no surprise, since the well-known Dutch ruff collar of white linen batiste, which sits around the necks of many subjects of Dutch portraits, originally came from Spain and was worn by both women and men.
These impressive, but above all impractical, collars are a good example of conspicuous consumption – ostentatiously showing off your wealth, however uncomfortable it may be. They were introduced from Spain to the Southern Netherlands in the second half of the 16th century, spreading from there to the Northern Netherlands. The collars emphasised the status of the wearer, and were worn until around 1640, after which time flat lace collars became fashionable again.
Unfortunately, there are no huiks left, but on the basis of the painted images in which they appear, their rise seems to coincide with the growing Spanish influence in the Netherlands during the 16th century. In order to be able to trace the geography of the cultural journey of the huik, we must mainly rely on visual sources, in addition to some written references.
The oldest image
Until now, it was assumed that one of the first European artists to depict a woman wearing a huik was Albrecht Dürer while travelling through the Low Countries in 1520 to 21. In his travel diary, he also noted how his wife Agnes received 14 cubits of good, thick Harasz along the way to have her own Höcken (huik) made. Haras was the name of a fabric made of silk, wool, and linen, named after the northern French town of Arras, where this fabric was presumably produced.
Coincidentally, I recently came across two even older images of a woman wearing a huik on woodcuts from 1498.
The images are in an incunabulum, printed in Schiedam, the Netherlands, about the life of Saint Lidwina of Schiedam (1380-1433). The book tells the story of Lidwina, who fell on the ice as a girl while skating, after which she never recovered. She lay sick on her bed for the rest of her life, and was cared for by beguines from Schiedam, as can be seen on these woodcuts. Because she remained friendly and patient throughout her life, despite her disability, Lidwina became the patron saint for the chronically ill and handicapped. The woodcuts are from Vita alme virginis Liidwine by Johannes Brugman from 1498, which was printed by the Schiedam priest and printer Otgier Nachtegaal. A copy is kept in the Schiedam City Archives.
The spread of Spanish fashion through Europe during the 16th century is particularly well documented in England and Italy, where Spanish princesses and aristocratic ladies married into the upper classes, bringing their fashion styles with them. In the Netherlands, this phenomenon was somewhat less striking, but in Brussels – where the Spanish emissaries lived – and especially in the important port city of Antwerp, many merchants came from Spain to sell their wares in trading houses. There was a lot of Spanish clothing; most of the Spanish elements in Dutch fashion came to the north through Flanders, Brabant, and Hainaut. After the Falll of Antwerp in 1585, 150,000 protestants of fled north and ended up mainly in Zeeland, Holland, and Germany (in Cologne).
That flow of immigrants from the south brought with it a mix of Spanish and French customs and fashion styles, as described by the Italian trader Lodovico Guicciardini (1521-1589) in his Beschrijvinghe van alle de Nederlanden (Description of all the Netherlands, 1567), which appeared in Dutch in 1612. The English traveller Fynes Moryson (1566-1630) also described an important feature of Dutch fashion around 1600:
“A hoyke or vaile which covers their heads, and hangs down upon their backs to their legges, and this vaile in Holland is of a light stuffe or Kersie [...] and they gather the Vaile with their hands to cover all their faces, but only the eyes.”
A mantle, called a haik, haïk, hayyk, heik, or haick, was originally a traditional long, white, woman's hooded cloak, worn for centuries in North Africa, and in Spain during the Moorish period. From North Africa, the haik was introduced into Spain, where it was also called an almalafa after the Arabic word mil afa or Al-milhafa, meaning coat, cape, or robe. Christian Europeans had been interested in Moorish fabrics since the Middle Ages, which they valued for their craftsmanship and quality, and many medieval European paintings depict the Madonna and Child wearing such precious cloth. Through medieval trading routes, such fabrics and garments arrived in Europe via important international ports such as Venice, Bruges, and Antwerp.
Interestingly, in a cityscape of the Spanish city of Granada from 1563, drawn on the spot by Antwerp artist Joris Hoefnagel (1542-c1600), the Spanish women in the foreground are wearing both the white and the black haik or almalafa. Originally, the haik was worn only by Spanish Muslim women who, after North African examples, also used it to cover their faces, and soon the mantle and its use were also adopted by Christian Spanish women from all walks of life. After the Reconquista of 1492 and the Christian reconquest of the Spanish-Arab city of Granada, it was forbidden to wear Islamic clothing.
The fact that Christian women in Spain had been familiar with the haik and the mantle for some time is evident from the 16th century Trachtenbuch (costume picture book) by German artist Christoph Weiditz from 1529. He travelled through Europe in 1528 and 1529 and portrayed women from Granada in Spain in white haiks, as well as Flemish and Frisian women in their black huiks.
Around 1567, the Spanish haik or almalafa was gradually replaced by the Castilian mantle or manto, with the original hooded cloak being extended by a round flat hat. On top of the hat was a kind of rod that connected the two parts together, forming what was called a houpette, worn by young girls. In 1617, John Taylor visited the city of Antwerp and noted the following about this type of huik in his travel journal:
“The women here are no fashion mongers, but they keepe in their degrees one continuall habit, as the richer sort doe weare a Huicke, which is a robe of cloth or stuffe plated, and the upper part of it is gathered and sowed together in the forme of an English potlid, with a tassel on the top, and so put upon the head, and the garment goes over her ruffe and face if she please, and so downe to the ground, so that a man may meet his owne wife, and perhaps not know her from another Woman.”
We know of one type of beaked huik only from prints, paintings and wall tiles, as real examples have not survived due to their material fragility.
The hood of shame
We only know of the huik from pictures since no real examples from the 15th to the 17th centuries survive. In Het Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, however, there is one special exception – the so-called Brabantse schandhuik (Brabant's huik of shame). Carpenter Jacobus van der Hoeven and painter Ambrosius Visscher produced this unique wooden huik in 1688, most probably commissioned by the city of Den Bosch. It was intended for women as a variation on the traditional pillory in which lawbreakers were publicly disgraced. At that time, the huik was still worn by women in Brabant, but in this case the beaked huik was turned into a woman-degrading instrument.
The fact that a huik was used to disgrace women in public is the result of a heated debate among men about its meaning – on the one hand, this woman’s mantle symbolises proper behaviour and piety, while on the other, it seems to offer disguise for secret practices, leading moralists to turn it into a negative symbol. After all, the huik was also part of the outfit which young women wore when ‘courting’ before marriage, or while looking for a husband.
In a number of 17th-century paintings, this meaning is wrapped up in market scenes in which women go shopping in their huik. The danger of wearing one became clear when women visited the prison in Antwerp, when it had to be removed to check for prohibited items, and to prevent a male prisoner from dressing up as a woman in order to escape. Prostitutes, brothel keepers, and adulteresses were driven through the city of Den Bosch on a cart, sitting in the wooden huik of shame. The makers adorned it with animal symbols referring to unchastity and witchcraft – lizards, rats, toads, and snakes, with one large toad at the very top. On the inside is an iron collar with which the punished woman was held. In the course of the 18th century, the huik was still a common garment, and women who did not behave according to the law and social norms were still condemned to this degrading treatment in Den Bosch. There is a judgement dating from 1773 in which the defendant Maria Crafford, a knitter and needleworker, was sentenced to a public journey by cart in the huik of shame, after which she was rationed to eight days of water and bread.
The association between the huik and an adulteress can already be seen in the 16th century.
As a visual motif in the work of painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the context of The Inverted World – linked to carnivals, when everything is different from normal – gives the blue huik a negative meaning. An adulterous woman can be seen in the act of putting a blue huik on her husband, indicating the reversal of the household roles – she is the one cheating, and her husband is the one being fooled. In this context, the huik is associated with cheating and marital infidelity.
Inhabited by Imaginings We Did Not Choose
Finally, the work of artist Yasmina Bouziane is a powerful contemporary response to the shared past of the huik and the haik. Her photographic series Inhabited by Imaginings We Did Not Choose reflects on the history of the Algerian haik that played an important and visible role during the French colonisation of Algeria, beginning in 1830 and lasting until the middle of the 20th century. Moreover, European orientalism fed the idea that these non-European societies had to be conquered and civilised, making the haik the target and justification to do so. French settlers reasoned that, if they were able to conquer the haik, and so unveil women, they could conquer Algeria. During the Franco-Algerian war, the haik therefore became a symbol of resistance for Algerians against French domination, and a sign of their independence. Both men and women hid under the haik in order to smuggle all kinds of things for the resistance.
By examining the transcultural biography of the huik and the haik, shared histories become visible, although a great deal of research is still needed to unravel the complex and multiple origins of this type of garment and so uncover the fascinating acculturation process between different cultures that have been connected for centuries.
- DZD, ‘Without roots you are lost’, in: DZD. The reverberation of one voice scores an infinite trace, april 21, 2013
- Geeske Kruseman, ‘Een huik met een snavel, een huik met een hoed’, in: Kostuum 2019, jaarboek Nederlandse Kostuumvereniging voor Mode en Streekdracht, januari 2020
- Miroirs d’Orients, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille, tentoonstellingscatalogus, ed. Somogy, éd.d'Arts,Paris, 2009
- Bianca Du Mortier, ‘In Search of the Origins of the Huik: Did the Spanish Play a Part in Its Introduction?’, in: Undressing Rubens. Fashion and Painting in Seventeenth-Century Antwerp, Abigail D. Newman and Lieneke Nijkamp (ed.), Harvey Miller Publishers/Brepols Publishers, 2019, pp. 161-181
- Louis M. Pryke, Ishtar. Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World, London [Routledge], 2017
- Bert Watteeuw, ‘Material Girl. Helene Fourment Wearing a Huyck’, in: Undressing Rubens. Fashion and Painting in Seventeenth-Century Antwerp, Abigail D. Newman and Lieneke Nijkamp (ed.), Harvey Miller Publishers/Brepols Publishers, 2019, pp. 183-223.