My parents decided rather late to buy a television. That’s why my sisters and I often watched television at the homes of neighbouring children. Always the children’s programmes on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, but also solemn events, such as the reading of the speech from the throne on Prinsjesdag. It was on one such occasion that I first saw our Queen (then Juliana) on television. Although I saw her sitting on a throne, to me she didn’t look like a queen at all. Apparently I was expecting a beautiful lady like the ones in fairy tales. So I was deeply disappointed and said out loud that I thought the queen was ugly. The children next door then told me in a threatening tone that I would be arrested and thrown in jail for saying that. This made me a little nervous and for at least one night I had trouble sleeping.
I do not remember whether on that occasion I noticed anything special about the appearance of other people present in the Knights’ Hall (Ridderzaal). And yet, at the time I am talking about, in the early sixties, there were some interesting clothes on view: official, traditional attire worn by male attendants.
It is very likely that I saw Minister Luns, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in his official costume, because it’s known that he kept on wearing this attire well into the sixties. Members of the Council of State have also long held out for appearing in the Knights’ Hall in full ceremonial dress.
We are, of course, used to the fact that someone who performs a certain function has a uniform to match. The stewardess who serves you a drink in an aeroplane or the cashier in a supermarket are examples of this.
Government officials also had uniforms, although in those circles they were called official costumes. In 1815 our first king, William I, laid down the dress code. He stipulated that ‘All higher and lower civil officials, who have costumes, shall wear them when they appear at Court. The word costume shall mean no other than those approved by His Majesty’. The styling of official costumes has since been formulated by the king or queen in Royal Decrees, the last of which dates from 1948. Each office has its own major and minor costume; the major costume is gala.
Bicornes and tricornes
A notable feature of gala versions of the official costumes were the so-called bicornes worn by ministers, MPs and other Prinsjesdag participants. There are two versions of this type of headgear: with the front and rear edges folded up (think of Napoleon’s hats) or with the sides folded up.
It is the latter variant that we are talking about in this article. Because the inside of the bicorne was made of a flexible material, the headgear could be carried flat under the arm.
We no longer see bicornes in the Knights’ Hall (and this year in the Royal Theatre) on Prinsjesdag, but we do see them in the procession. On either side of the Glass Coach, footmen walk wearing bicornes, while the coachman wears a tricorne.
Current dress code
On Prinsjesdag male attendants are now expected to appear in morning dress. This is a three-piece suit consisting of a jacket, trousers and a waistcoat. The jacket (also called tailcoat), is single-breasted and usually has peaked lapels, is closed with a single button and has curved front edges sloping back into tails of knee length. Because of this cut, in Dutch the tailcoat is nicknamed ‘billentikker’ (buttocks tickler) or ‘pinguin jas’ (penguin coat).
The trousers are grey striped without turn-ups. Under the plain grey waistcoat, a white shirt is worn with double cuffs and a turn-down collar. A grey tie completes the look.
After the Second World War, wearers of official costumes during Prinsjesdag became a minority. As a result, men’s attire has become less and less colourful. It is now the female MPs, ministers, state secretaries and guests who steal the show with their hats and caps.
I will tell you other fun stories about Prinsjesdag and other important dates during my city walks and cycle tours.