Belgian Boys Clothes: Language and Regional Differences

Figure 1.--This Belgian boy was photographed in Antwerp, probably in the 1880s. Notice what looks like an Eton collar and bow as well as the vest. The studio had a French name, Photographie Artistique. Interestingly the city name was printed in both French and Dutch on the front: Antwerpen/Anvers. The advertisement on the back had the steret address in Dutch and French. Click on the image to see the back. Image courtesy of the MD collection.

Belgium is a bilingual country with French being spoken in Walonia and Dutch in Flanders. Actually there are three official languages in Belgium as there is a small area where German is spoken. Belgium became an independent county in 1830 declaring independence from the Netherlands. After independence, Belgium was dominated for years by the French speaking minority in Walonia. Interestingly the Dutch speaking majority in Flanders share cultural similariies with both the Waloons and Dutch. The Flemish for example are mostly Catholic like the Waloons and share many culinary traditions. Many other traditions, like the language, are shared with the Dutch. Clothing is one the trends which have been affected by the linguistic division. Understanding some of the background helps to explain differences between the Netherlands and Belgium (Flanders and Walonia).

Belgian Independence

The Low Countries had been acquired by the Hapsburgs as part of the Bourguignon inheritance at the turn of the 16th century. After Emperor Charles V abdicated, the Low Countries devolved to the Spanish Crown. The northern Netherlands, often supported by England managed to gain and maintain their independence from both Spain and France. Here the Duke of Marlbourogh played a major role in blunnting the aggresive moves of Louis XIV. William of Orange in turn helped to bring about the Glorious Revolution in England which deposed James II. What is now Beligum has variously been described as the Austrian or Spanish Netherlands well as the Southern Netherlands. France in 1800 as part of the Napoleonic Wars gained control over all of the Low Countries. Napoleon first installed his brother as king, but after they quarled, he anned the Low Countries, including Belgium, to rnce. After Waterloo in 1815, the Allies at the Council of Vienna joined the Southern and the Northern Netherlands (today Belgium and Holland) to become the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Belgium became an independent county in 1830 declaring independence from the Netherlands in 1830, thereby for the first time taking on the name of Belgium. This was a new name, coined after Latin "Belgae" which at the beginning of the Christian era indicated tribes living in roughly pesent day Holland, Belgium, Northern France and parts of Germany. A German Prince who had fought with the Russians in the Napoleonic Wars, Leopold, was offered the crown. Leopold had married the British Crown Princess Charlotte and had a close rlationship with the British royal family. This was intensifiued when he helped bring a nephew, Prince Albert, and Queen Victoria Albert together at about the same time he became King of Belgium. These familiy ties developed into diplomatic links with Britain becoming a guarantor of Belgian independence. At the time of indepncence, there had never been a Belgian nation. The new government successfully instilled a national feeling into its subjects, partly by re-interpreting history. One example of this is the way they interpreted Caesar's De Bello Gallico in which he writes, "Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae." (Of all these the Belgians are the most valiant). They narrowed down the territory of the Belgae to within the borders of the new state and never mentioned Caesar's next sentence: "propterea quod a cultu atque humanitate provinciae longissime absunt" (because they are farthest away from the civilization and the culture of the Roman province of Southern France). After independence, Belgium was dominated for years by the French speaking majority in Walonia.

Belgian Regions

Any discussion of Belgian regions is complicated by terms like Flanders, Brabant, Limburg etc. may refer to very different areas according to the time we are speaking about. Barbant is a specialk case in point.


French speaking Wallonia is composed of many former duchies and other small fiedoms. It is the souther portion of Belgium.
Brabant: Brabant is a large province comprising much of central Belgium, and extending into southern Netherlands. Brabant was ruled by the Counts of Lourain until 1095 and the Dukes of Brabant there after. The use of the the term Barbant is very complicated. The historic duchy of Brabant is now partitioned into four provinces one of which is in the Netherlands (provincie Noord-Brabant). Two are in Flanders (in modern terms the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium) : provincie Antwerpen and provincie Vlaams-Brabant (i.e. Flemish Brabant). The forth one is in Wallonia, the French-speaking southern half of Belgium ad is called le Brabant wallon (Walloon Brabant).
Hainault: Hainault is a duchy located in southern Belgium. It is the territory between Leige and Brussels to the north, and Lille and Valenciennes in France, to the south. Mons, now a part of Hainault, was autonomous for a brief period in the 10th century.
Liege: Liege is a Bishopric in central Belgium involving substantial territory. Temporal authority gradually replaced the prelacy. In Europe everything is close, Liège city is only a few miles away from the Dutch city of Maastricht and the German city of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle). It is located in the far northeastern corner of Belgium in the province of Liège where the official language is French. However, there is a German minority, a remnant of Eupen-Malmédy that belonged to Germany until after World War I (1918).
Limburg: Limburg is a duchy, located in northeastern Belgium and southeastern Netherlands and of course fampis for its cheese. Looz is a small Belgian county which makes up much of the present-day province of Limburg.
Lower Lorraine: Lower Lorraine is a duchy located more or less in modern Belgium. It was one of the divisions of Lotharingia during the 10th century. It gradually lost territory as neighboring dynasties grew in power and was eventually absorbed by Brabant.
Namur: Namur in south-central Belgium was a county and in 1184 became a Margraviate


Flanders is an important County in northwestern Belgium, located along the North Sea coast. Until the Burgundian inheritence passed to the House of Habsburg (1482), Flanders was a province of France, rather than the Holy Roman Empire, but is largely Dutch speaking. It remained Catholic during the Reformation. Belgium In the 19th century was governed as a centralized unitarian state with French as the only language of government, education and the administration of justice, even in the Dutch-speaking provinces like Flanders. This mean that Dutch speaking boys had to go to schools thast were taught in French. This of course caused consideral resentment. Native French speakers had an advantage in the schools and in competition for many jobs. A movement started around 1860 to obtain equal rights for Dutch speaking Belgians, but was slow to achieve success--especially under the rule of Leopold II. The Council of Flanders during World War I, believing that the German occupation authorities would encourage secession, proclaimed independence from Belgium on December 22, 1917. This was, however, terminated by German occupation authorities July 25, 1918. The Flemish civil rights movement achieved its first real successes after the World War I (1914-18). The NAZIs on July 29, 1940 during their World War II occupation of Belgium annexed Eupen, Malmedy (site of the SS masacre of American prisoners in the Battlke of the Buldge), and Moresnet to the Reich. I am not sure how the local population reacted. The Flemish civil rights movement gained momentum only after World War II. If the greviances had not been addressed--Belgian probably could not have survived as a united country. The Flemish acquired the right to be taught and judged in Dutch. But even then public life leaned heavily on the use of French. In most schools, French was the "first foreign language" which one was supposed to speak fluently after finishing the sixth form. English was "second foreign language" and considered far less important, being taught only 1-2 hours a week. Under these circumstances, Flanders was, well into the 20th century, some kind of a backwater of the French cultural sphere and out of touch with the world at large. Gradually Flemish schools were able to offer more options. One Dutch reader has provided us information about his Antwerp school. Today the Dutch speaking northern half of Belgium comprises five provinces: from West to East: West-Vlaanderen, Oost-Vlaanderen, Antwerpen, Vlaams Brabant and Limburg. However, the historic medieval county of Flanders was bilingual with both French-speaking and Dutch-speaking areas that are now spread over the provinces of Oost-Vlaanderen, West-Vlaanderen and parts of Northern France, Wallonia, and the Dutch province of Zeeland.

Belgian Congo

The colonial era was launched by one of Europe's smallest countries--Belgium. King Leopold II, who proved to be the most brutal colonizers launched the colonial race in Africa. Belgium was a new country and had not participated in the colonial competition of the 16th and 17th century. Now Leopold declared, "Belgium must have a colony". The colony Leopold founded, the Belgian Congo, was a far cry from the humanitarian inpulse with which the Victorians justified colonialism. Leopold administered the Congo as his personal property and not a national colony. The people in the the Congo Free State were essentilly turned into slaves worked to enrich Leopold persnally. They were subjected to horendous abuses. As reports filtered out describing the terrible abuses, King Léopold eventually relinguished personal control of the Congo. Belgium annexed the Congo with a Treaty (November 28, 1907). The Belgian Colony was administered by a governor-general at Boma. A Colonial Council and colonial minister in Brussels set policy. The Congo was divided into 15 administrative districts. The new colonial adminstration made many improvements. The Belgians to redeam their national reputation attempted to turn the Congo into a "model colony". The Belgiand opened primary and high schools. Unlike some colonial powers, many of the ethnic laguages were used in the new schools. Belgian doctors and medics worked on tropical diseases, an eradicated the sleeping disease. The Belgians set up perhaps the most comprehensive medical infrastructure in Africa. The Belgians developed the Congo economicallt, building railways, ports, roads and opening mines and plantations. At the time of indepence, the Comgo had Africa's highest gross national product was the highest in Africa. The wealth was not, however, well distriubuted nd the Belgian Government did very liitle to prepare the colony for self government.

The Netherlands

Quite the opposite in Holland: the Dutch have always had a keen interest in the Anglo-Saxon world and at schools English had become by far the most important foreign language well before World War II.


HBC reports that similar trends can be observed in Alsace-Loraine, two French provinces that have been a bone of contention between France and German for centuries. Again the linguisted and cultural differences have been reflected in fashion and clotthing.

Linguistic and National Differences

The impact of the linguistic separation across national boundaries explains many of the differences and similarities in the region.

Flemish and Dutch

The Dutch and Flemish share a common language and literature, and most of their songs, tales and folklore, in the field of material culture there are considerable differences. Dutch fashions trends have generally not been adopted in Flanders. The Dutch look West to Britain and America. They have been in the post-World War II period been quick to adopt American trends. Also, Holland is a much more egalitarian society, were you are supposed to play down status, money, titles and anything that could distinguish you from the common people.


There is, and has always been, a French-speaking minority and a Dutch-speaking majority in Belgium. There are about 6,5 million Dutch-speaking or Flemish Belgians and 4 million French-speaking Walloons. The Flemish have always been a majority numerically but, for a variety of reasons, their upper classes became Frenchified during the 19th century. In the Flemish cities they were important socially and culturally but always remained a small minority in numbers. The Flemish therefore were socially inferior untill the first half of the 20th century. The resultant inequities have been addressed by the Flemish Movement from about 1860 onward, gaining momentum after the second world war. In many ways this can be likened to what has happened in Quebec. Today Flanders is overwhelmingly Dutch-speaking with only a few remnants of its former French cultural overlay. French street names on photographs would be inconceivable today. A school chum of mine, of a French-speaking Flemish family, has become a lawyer. He may still have an interview in French with some of his clients but he would address the court in Dutch and wouldn't be able to do otherwise so he told me recently. He has tried to raise his children in French, partly by sending them to a French boarding school, but, over the past decades, has seen them all marry speakers of Dutch and now speaks Dutch to his grandchildren. Others are trying to make a valiant last stand for the francophonie and organize some kind of social life in French but they are hampered by the refusal of local and provincial authorities to subsidize their lectures and theatre performances. Their declining numbers have done away with all French language newspapers and the prominent place accorded to French magazines by newsstands in the past. I feel that these socio-cultural changes explain at least part of the trends such as the decrease of fashion differences between Holland and Belgium (Flanders) and increasing orientation of Flemish trends toward the Anglo-Saxon world.

Flemish and Waloons: Customs

In this respect, the Flemish share with the Walloons a number of culinary customs and clothing preferences. In the field of clothing that means that the Flemish are generally more conservative than the Dutch, attach more importace to dressing smartly and look South for their fashions. One Dutch boy growing up in Belgium explains that this was the reason his clothing differed from his Dutch cousins. I have also note that Flemish scouts, like Waloon Scouts, held on so much longer to full uniform (with short pants) than their Dutch counterparts. And I have been told that when some of the larger Dutch clothing stores expanded and opened up shop in Belgium, they had a different buying policy in each country since a collection bought for the Dutch market would not sell well in Flanders and the reverse. A Flemish business man or professional will always wear a well-cut suit, preferably from Brioni or similar. His Dutch counterpart not too long ago may well have worn baggy trousers, a sloppy jacket, wrong shoes and a gaudy tie. Fortunatly, on this point much improvement has been made.


To make matters even more complicated, in addition to Flemish (Dutch) and Walloon (French) German is also an official language in Belgium. The province of Liege in the east of the country near the German border has a large German-speaking minority. If there is any German influence as far as fashion is concerned, HBC does not know. People in that area are fairly conservative, but on the other hand many of the German-Belgians are nowadays sought after on account of their language skills, because besides German, they also know French and often Dutch which is making them increasingly cosmopolitan.

Fashion Magazines

There are a number of fashion magazines published in Belgium and neigboring countries. The language of publication of course is a reflecion of the target audience. Less clear is how the publication language affects the fashions shown in the magazines. There is some indication for example that Belgian fashion magazines published in Dutch still have been stronhly affected by French fashions. More recent indiactions suggest that Belgian Dutch-language magazines in recent years tend to follow Dutch fashion trends more than French trends. In addition there has been a general convergence of youth fashions, especially teen fashions, throughout Europe.

Vrouw en Huis

The Belgian magazine Vrouw en Huis ("Woman and Home") was an important source of fashion information for Belgian and Dutch mothers. It was a ladies magazine with all sorts of home and family artocles, but fashion was an important element. They commonly publisghed patterns. We have some issues from the early 1950s. It was a weekly magazine and as it was in Dutch for Flemish readers, was also sold in the Netherlands. I'm not sure how popular it was among French readers. We do not know when it began publishing or how long it published.

Modern Trends

During the past 30 years, changes in Flanders have been fast and always in the same direction: Away from the French/Latin sphere of influence, nearer to the Anglo-Saxon world. There is hardly any Flemish youngster now who isn't fluent in English. Watching each others TV-programmes certainly has brought material culture in Holland and Flanders much nearer to each other. Dutch and Flemish females now read the same fashion magazines. Stores probably don't bother any more to offer a different collection in each country. What differences there are these days are gradual and circumstantial, in part also determined by social class.

The Netherlands

At ceremonies like funerals, receptions, even marriages a lot if not most Dutch boys wear casuals, including sneakers. And many a well to do Dutch middle class father would have a hell of a job convincing junior to don a tie and jacket to eat out, even in a top class restaurant. Junior is likely not to even own a pair of regular shoes. Such conventions are adhered to only by the upper class. The street scene as to youngsters' shoes and clothes is no different in Antwerp now from Rotterdam, leaving aside the chassidim in Antwerp's Jewish quarter, but that a different matter altogether. Jeans and sneakers are everywere.


Middle class boys in Flanders will own at least one pair of leather shoes and a suit for formal occasions. At a Flemish funeral, wedding party, bar-mitzvah or baptism ceremony children in casuals would be accepted in the lowest ranks of society only. There are some vestiges of the old 'latinité' in Flanders. One striking remnant is the large amount of shops for childrens' clothes, not only for under fives, but also for schoolchildren. Frequently they offer a certain type of clothes that the French call 'bon chic bon genre'. People who buy these for their children implicitly make a of statement about their social status. Such shops are few and far between in Holland.

Youth Groups

Youth groups like Belgian society were also split along linguistic and religious lines. There was no single Belgian Scout movement, but rather separate associations for the different linguistic groups. There are also non-Scout youth groups with religious and linguistic identity. During the NAZI Word War II occupation of Belgian, Scouting was abolished and separate nationalist youth groups were established in Walonia and Fanders. This was in part because there were different right-wing political parties in Flanders and Walonia. There were also ethnic difference. Had the NAZIs on the War, Flanders like the Netherlands would have been incororated into the Reich. As soon as the Allies reached Belgium in 1944, Scouting reappeared along the same lingistic divisions as before the War. This continues to be the case today.

Figure 2.--This Belgian boy wears a kneepants sailor suit. He was photographed in Brussels during 1906. The photographer was a French speaker, A. Louvois and the advertisement on the back was written in French, including the city--Les Bruxelles. Click on theimage to see the back of the card. Image courtesy of the MD collection

Belgian Place Names

We noted a 1910 cabinent card which indicated that the portrait was taken in Anvers. Tracking down just where Anvers was led us back to the language division in Belgium. Anvers is the French name for Antwerp. The Dutch (Flemish) name is Antwerpen. Most cities in Belgium have two names, French and Dutch. Brussels is Brussel in Dutch and Bruxelles in French. Leuven and Louvain, Luik and Liege, Brugge and Bruges, Gent and Gand, Bergen and Mons, Kortrijk and Courtrai, etc. There always has been a linguistic war in Belgium. In Flemish-speaking areas they refuse to display or mention the French name of a city and the same goes for the Walloon parts of the country where everything is only in French and the Dutch names are being ignored. It was different in the 19th century when Belgium became a country. At that time everything was in French, even in 100 percent Flemish cities, but the "Vlaamsche Beweging" (Flemish Movement) fought hard to achieve the situation we have now, where preference for the majority-language is the law. Only the capital, Brussels, is bi-lingual. There all street names are in Dutch and in French.

Photographic Assessments

HBC wondered if the wording on cabinent cards and other prints from photographic studios might suggest whether the children photographed were Waloons or Flemish. As most HBC readers know, cabinent cards generally have the name of the photographer and the city. Both the ophotographer's name and how the name of the city was written (cities have different names in Fraench and Ditch). This would of course help to answer if there were differences in the clothig trends of Waloon and Flemish children. The cahinent portraits were mostly taken before World War I. At that time French was still used for trade and other purposes in Flemish cities. That changed after World War I when the Flemish Movement had become strong enough to give preference to Flemish (Dutch) in all aspects of society. Of course, some people kept on speaking French among themselves, especially when they belonged to a small Walloon minority, but after many years of suppression, the Flemish were proud to express themselves in their own language.


Interestingly, some Belgians use English when communicating with each other. The animosity between French and Flemish sometimes leads to funny situations where Belgians of these two ethnic groups prefer to converse with each other in English rather than use the other's idiom, which generally speaking would be French, since most educated Flemings know French, while the French-speakers never bother to learn Dutch. A French reader writes, "Yes I have observed this in Belgium. The Waloons are very close to us. Of course now that we no longer have frontiers within the European Community, these kinds of divisions may change. I guess the best solution would be to learn English as the second language. It is much easier to learn than French, Dutch or German. The wrinting in particular is also much simpler. After World War II here in France many students learned German as we began developing a new relationship with Germany. Today English is the principal foring language taught in school. In the future it will probably even be taught in the beginning classes of primary school. All my children speak English." Yes it will be interesting to see how Europe develops. The European Union does appear to have significantly affected the key French-German relationship. The imapct on other troubling relationship such as the Waloon-Flemish relationship, the Basques in Spain, the Catholics and Protestants in Ulster, the Greeks-Turks, not to mention the Balkans remains to be seen.

Reader Comments

A Dutch reader writes, "It is interesting to note that in a country like Switzerland where they have three (actually four) different cultures (German, French and Italian) people live in harmony, while the citizens of Belgium, the Flemish and the Walloons, never seem to get along. I also find it interesting that, although the Flemish were considered backward and inferior in the past, they nevertheless produced more world-famous artists than the Walloons. Rubens, van Dyck, Memling (who was born in Germany, but lived and worked in Bruges), Van der Weyde, the Van Eyck brothers, come to mind and I must say that the cities in Flanders are more beautiful than the ones in Wallonia. Only in the field of music and literature the Walloons achieved more (famous composers were Gretry, Franck and Vieutemps), and Maurice Maeterlinck was a great writer and poet (but also here I believe that he was of Flemish stock looking at his name)."


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Created: September 18, 1998
Last updated: 9:49 PM 10/29/2006