Dispatches from Amsterdam: Transportation and Fashion

The Dutch Nation State can be narrated through symbols and representations that connote what it means to be Dutch and how this narration differs from what is beyond the Netherlands borders. Symbols and representation are defined by Stuart Hall to make up the identity of a nation state. The Dutch symbols that will be examined in this paper include the Netherlands cycling culture, Dutch fashion and gender relations. These aspects are explored through the five main elements that make up a nation-state and therefore will be considered in terms of how they make up a larger image of Dutch lifestyle and how they are influenced by globalization. It will also be explored in what ways these symbols have progressed to create the national identity of the Netherlands and a consideration of the nonhomogeneous nature of nation-states will be analyzed.
How did the Dutch identity of a cycling, casual dressing, gender tolerant society come to be known internationally as a marker of the nation-state? When thinking of the Netherlands bike culture is often the first thing that comes to a foreign mind due to the way in which Dutch culture is displayed in international media. International media also represents the Netherlands as “a model of highly evolved religious tolerance and political pluralism” (Gouda 2008). Stuart Hall defines the representation of the Netherlands to be part of the narrative of the nation (Hall 1996). This narration of the nation is the discourse of what it means to be Dutch and is intertwined with cycling as more than a means of transportation, but personal and national identity.
The cycling culture in the Netherlands feels autonomous to the nation-state and differs greatly from the cycling culture of other nation-states. Traveling two hours on a train into Belgium, the mass amounts of bikes parked at train stations do not exist, making the culture significant within the Netherlands borders. In comparison to other nations that have a large biking culture such as Portland, the Netherlands identity tied to biking differs. In Portland biking is said to be tied to “the ‘Portland attitude’ of sustainability and self-empowerment in which it is “hip” to bike, differing greatly from the Netherlands attitude of biking which is seen as a tradition instead of a “subculture” (Pelzer 2010). Stuart Hall defines the second way of narrating a national identity to be tied to “origins, continuity, tradition and timelessness” (Hall 1996) in which for the Netherlands biking seems “in the nature of things” (Hall 1996).
Despite the seemingly timeless integration of the bike as a symbol of the Netherlands this tradition cannot be seen dating back to the beginning of Dutch history. Kuipers states that the narration of cycling culture and Dutch lifestyle that forms the “nation habitus” was diffused top-down from advertising campaigns (Kuipers 2013). Hall defines this third means of understanding national identity to be “the invention of tradition” (Hall 1996). Hall describes that traditions are often late nineteenth and twentieth-century habits turned into modern traditions. This is the case for bike culture in the Netherlands as the “significant bicycle movement in the 1970s” is what has lead to the popular culture of biking today (Pelzer 2010).
Further than the biking narrative, Dutch culture has a narrative of being open and gender tolerant. The Netherlands have scored higher repeatedly in toleration surveys than surrounding countries such as Italy and Estonia (Passani 2016). The gender tolerance of the nation has been stated to be part of “a long history of LGBT emancipation” (Passani 2016). Although the Netherlands is more gender tolerant than some nations they are not on a wholly radically more forward-thinking than surrounding nations despite the national discourse of openness. Safe spaces for the LGBTQ community are limited and it is said that the historical lesbian bar, Bar Buka, is even closing its doors, while self-proclaimed safe spaces such as De School, are stated to not be as inclusive as made out to be.
The idea that the Netherlands has always been part of a history of tolerance and diversification can be understood in the terms of Hall to be part of the nation’s discourse as a “foundational myth” (Hall 1996). Openness to gender tolerance is part of the Netherlands discursive history provides “a narrative in terms of which an alternative history or counter-narrative, predates the ruptures of colonization” (Hall 1996). Scholar Gouda states that “legitimating cultural differences in the boundaries of Dutch society, were deformed beyond recognition in the colonial enterprise” (Gouda 2008).The Netherlands has not always been and is to this day, not fully gender tolerant despite the invented tradition of tolerance which can be understood as a foundational myth in which the nation-state narrative is built upon.
Hall states that “ the discourse of national culture is not as modern as it appears to be” (Hall 1996). This can be seen in the individual that is living in the Netherlands today through examining their clothing, as fashion can be seen as a representation of culture (Crane 2006). Looking at the fashion of the modern Dutchman we can see in the ways that a national discourse about the Netherlands is largely outdated. The fashion of the Dutchman is highly authentic as men attempt to dress more authenticly than uniquely and “experimenting with clothing is seen to be inauthentic” (Van der Laan 2016). Looking at the authenticity of modern Dutch male fashion we can see the contrast between the national narrative made out of foundational myths and displayed by stories of timelessness through the media to be what is truly inauthentic. An international outlook of Dutch fashion would often include the concept of clogs, however, these shoes are not a true representation of the Netherlands modern national discourse. The example of clogs explains how national discourses are not modern. Understanding this disparity in national discourse and the modern reality of everyday life for the Dutch people, we can come to understand the falsity of the so-called timeless traditions displayed through stories and media that are meant to define the discourse of a nation but do not truly encompass the rich diversity of modern society.

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