The people of the Axel
The people of the Axel
A Land Apart
The folds in the traditional costumes women in Axel wear are magnificent, pointing up like wings, or like tail fins on a 1950s American car.
The style originally began with small pleats in the cloth around the shoulders but grew higher over time as women−keen to outdo their neighbours−used packing paper to create ever more ingenious constructions.
It wasn’t easy to walk around with a design like that on your shoulders, nor was it particularly comfortable, but that didn’t bother Axel’s women. The very purpose of this traditional dress was to demonstrate that the wearer could afford this impractical style. Their rings−broad bands covering the finger right up to the knuckle− also made it clear: this woman doesn’t have to work at all! The engravings on the forehead jewellery women wore further indicated their status: two swans meant that she was well-off, and three that she was extremely rich.
In addition to one’s place on the social ladder, these dress codes also conveyed other messages. Aprons, for example, were folded with great precision after being washed, tied with a piece of string, and then stored in the cupboard like a parcel. Visible creases on an apron were a sign of diligence and clean- liness. You didn’t iron them out, but rather showed them off− the more creases, the better!
These distinctive traditional outfits−some of the most striking in the Netherlands−are the result of Axel’s centuries-long isolation. The town and the fields around it were surrounded by wide estuaries, which meant that the inhabitants rarely left the island and few visitors came to stay. As Calvinists, they didn’t have much need for contact with the Catholics to the east anyway, and while their neighbours in the west shared the same Protestant faith, they were so poor and lived such frugal lives they might as well have been a world away. The town flourished for a long time, the nutritious marine clay on the fields guaranteeing abundant harvests. Fishermen only had to lower their nets to be guaranteed a good catch. The town’s location on the West Scheldt river also meant it benefitted from passing trade headed for Antwerp and Ghent.
The people of Axel enjoyed showing off their wealth, especially with their clothes, but they could also be thrifty. Once the farmers had dug up their potatoes, they went back over the fields to gather anything that had been missed there was always enough left for at least one more meal! This tradition earned the people of Axel the nickname ‘potato pickers’, meant as an insult by outsiders, but proudly embraced by the locals.
When Belgium broke away, Zeelandic Flanders was cut off from the rest of the Netherlands, and Axel became an island a second time over. If you didn’t want to cross the border, the only way to reach the town was by boat. Becoming part of Belgium wasn’t an option.
They even adopted a new anthem that made it clear that the Zeelanders belonged to the Nether- lands, though of course it also contained a hint of independence, of pride in their ‘land apart’.
A clumsy horse treading on your toes, or a plough accidentally veering off course with a pair of wooden clogs on your feet, you’ll be fine! They’ll also keep your feet dry and won’t absorb the mud either. All in all, clogs are the perfect footwear for farmers. For centuries, practically everyone but rich city folk wore wooden clogs.
For a long time, Zeeland was one of the main centres for clog making. In the winter, when there wasn’t any other work to be done, the farm labourers would hand carve clogs around the wood stove. Later, they used machines, increasing their productivity from eight clogs a day to twelve pairs an hour. It soon paid off to start making clogs full-time!