Navigating Female Dutch Identity

by J. Streker

The case studies for this week ranged across a wide variety of subject matter and approaches.  What stood out to me was the way women were separated by two authors, and the extreme difference in which the authors approached discussions, or lack there of, surrounding their subjects.  Arnold Karskens, and Herman Roodenburg, utilize different viewpoints to shed the light on marginalized groups of women in Amsterdam and the surrounding area.  The prostitutes of De Ruyterkade, and larger Amsterdam, and the women of Marken are both put into boxes based on what they represent to an audience.

The approaches by Karsken and Roodenburg are drastically different and highlight an interesting disparagement in writings on women.  The approaches to the two vastly different subsections of women in the Netherlands, specifically the Amsterdam area, highlight an underlying social value system in the Netherlands, the home of the women and the authors of the writings.  The prostitutes are not treated with the same respect in history as the Marken women, and the Marken women are not treated as individuals like the prostitutes.  Why is there no balance when looking at women in the Netherlands?  They can be both symbols of their culture and place, and maintain their individuality.


While it was published in an anthropologic journal, I hesitate to call One Way to Live and anthropologic study.  The essay itself does not interpret the larger implications and statements of the prostitutes and their role in the larger culture of Amsterdam.  It does not talk about the role o of prostitutes in the larger Amsterdam society, or how they are viewed by the general public.  (Any such public views presented in my essay are my own). This is a positive and negative aspect of the essay.  On one hand, it allows the women to speak for themselves, in a sense, but it also gives a sense of the lack of importance or role of these women in the larger area.

The images are pure portraiture.  They are not documentation images, they are art.  They are staged and they are not organic.  Karskens mentions a few times in the text sections about the trouble he, or the women had, with scheduling their photo sessions. This does bring up an interesting question of how many prostitutes he had to talk to before putting together the most compelling essay possible.

Art accompanied by text, is very similar to how images are displayed in museums or at the very least art books.  This is an interesting time to bring in Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich’s views on the grammar of display.  In Karsken’s article the text is place before the images, even the whole photographic essay is forwarded by a blurb describing the situation and Karsken’s project. This grammar prioritizes the information of the text over the images, and primes the reader for what they are going to, and supposed to, see in the following photograph.  Several of the images, are not ones of women I would immediately assume are prostitutes.  While this is positive if they were on their own, as it would challenge what a prostitute looks like, accompanied with text that emphasis what they do continues the fetishisation of the group of women.*  The text doe serve another purpose though, it gives the women agency over their own lives.  They are blunt and to the point (though we don’t know what Karsken asked to illicit the responses) and though the images are staged by Karsken, the women retain control over their words.

The images by Karsken greatly inform how the women negotiate space in Amsterdam.  All except Martine (the final photo), are depicted alone.  Alone in the streets of Amsterdam, alone inside (and outside) their apartments, the isolation depicted in the photographs mirrors the isolation of these women from society.  They are an integral part of Amsterdam culture.  Like it or not, the prostitutes of the red light district have made women selling themselves a symbol of one of the greatest cities of the Netherlands.  They are important but alone.  Still pushed to the side by mainstream culture, which is enhanced by the grainy black and white photography.  They women literally live in a grey space in these photographs somewhere between the darkness of the back streets and the lights of Amsterdam’s most infamous quarter.



On the other hand, Roodenburg’s essay rarely focusses on the women at all.  Yes, he includes a few firsthand accounts and tales from the women themselves, but the majority of his argument comes from historical sources and personal opinion.  Perhaps his intention is to not focus too much on the women who already feel too much light is shed on them and their dress, and by focusing on the surrounding material he is not adding to this.  However, by not spending more time on the individual women he is lumping them all together which is the opposite of the dracht dressings that are so individual and unique to the person and generation.  Dracht is meant as a way for the women to present themselves as individuals and their pride in their family and home.  This pride was stolen by people who wanted to take away the meaning of the dresses and limit them to their aesthetic beauty and nostalgic feel (I will come back to the aesthetics of the dresses in a moment). The mass grouping of the women into a trope is also at the core of the fascination of outsiders and tourists.  The women lose their identity to outsiders and become moving clothing hangers there to be photographed.  The average tourist in Marken is no interested in getting to know the women or the story behind their dresses rather they are just interested in the quaint, old-timey, feel of dracht and are using the Marken women to live out their own fantasies and nostalgia for a simpler time.

Interestingly, Roodenburg also does not discuss the dresses themselves at all.  At the center of the essay, it can be hard for the reader to understand the intricacies of the decoration and the individual pieces if the dress is not described or at least visually represented well.  Roodenburg’s lack of images emphasizes this impartial and almost cold approach to clothing that is ingrained with such care.  His approach is the opposite of Karsken’s, who was interested in the prostitues ad not the prostitution, Roodenburg is interested in the culture of dracht and dracht wearing rather than the object itself.  As an art historian, it is my instinct to always come back to the object, in this case the dracht.  By not doing this Roodenburg is able to talk about the bigger things the social history and the current implications, but he loses his anchor.  However, as I mentioned before the beauty of the dresses os part of why people became so interested in them, perhaps Rootenburg was wary of suffering the same fate, people not paying attention to his arguments and being distracted by the intricacies of the decoration.


Dutch identity is complex and intricate.  It is so tied into so many things.  Like the buildings we discussed in week 2, it seems like the women discussed in this essay want to maintain connection with their past and the landscape of their public life, but they also want to stand out.  Mimicking the past and the social norm, but turning it into their own special thing.

Both sets of women negotiate public space uneasily because of the way the public space defines them.  They are like the monuments we talked about last week and as soon as they step into the public they become symbols of the place they inhabit.  Though seemingly on disparate ends on the social spectrum, the women of Marken and the women of Amsterdam are not that different.  They are trying to maintain their identity in a situation where the world wants to group them all together.  When the women at the center of this discussion are seen as individuals with lives and stories of their own it is harder for the people who interact with them, or pass them by on the street to treat them the same.  Would we be fetishizing the women of Marken as a symbol of the traditional good ‘ole days, if we knew what the dracht meant to the city and to the women?  Would we walk by prostitutes on the street, or would their customers try to take advantage of them, if we knew the struggle they were going through off the street? I would hope the answer to both of these questions would be no.

For these women the city as public platform is a blessing and a curse, a place where they can display themselves as they want to be seen, but a place where they are not always seen as individuals but as a piece of a larger whole.  Losing themselves by expressing their individuality.



*I don’t mean fetish(izing) in the connotation of sexual desire, but in the definition of having an excessive obsession



Karskens, Arnold. “One Way to Live.” Critique of Anthropology, vol. 7, no. 3: pp. 69-79. Nd. Web.

Roodenburg, Herman, “Their Own Heritage: Women Wearing Traditional Costumes in the Village of Marken,” in Reframing Dutch Culture



Arnold Karskens. Sabine. From “One Way to Live” pg. 76




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