Everything you need to know about the Dutch klompen

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As you know, we Dutch people live mainly in windmills, grow tulips, eat cheese and walk around in wooden shoes (which we call klompen).

It’s stunning to see that some foreigners who visit the Netherlands are still surprised by the fact that this is, of course, NOT the reality. Well at least the windmills, tulips and wooden shoes part.

We do love cheese.

So let’s talk about what’s really the deal with wooden shoes and the Netherlands. Because it’s something you must have come across when you prepared for your visit to the Netherlands and it’s interesting to see why it is very Dutch, but on the other hand, it’s not really.

A short history lesson about the wooden shoe

Let’s start by going back to the beginning.

The first interesting fact is that history shows the wooden shoe is not originally from the Netherlands. The wooden shoe goes back to the middle ages and comes from Central and Western Europe. In this large area the wooden shoe was mainly worn by workers and farmers.

The first wooden shoe was nothing more than a wooden sole with leather straps. Eventually they were able to make the whole wooden shoe out of one block of wood. This was then hollowed out and polished until a shoe was formed.

Wooden shoes proved to be ideal footwear for the muddy Dutch soil.

But what is it like walking around on these blocks of wood?

Living in wooden shoes

In the Netherlands we only see people in the countryside walking in wooden shoes. Traditionally these are painted yellow, although there are many variations. People who walk in wooden shoes find them warm, safe and comfortable.

But if you are wearing them for the first time, you will not likely experience this pleasant feeling, as most new walkers get blisters.

For me, I never reached the point where a wooden shoe fitted me perfectly. They felt like very uncomfortable …. mmm how should I say … wooden shoes?

Why is the Netherlands known as a wooden shoe country?

Well, actually, we don’t know this.

Some people think it’s because of another famous trait the Dutch are known for, our tradesman’s instinct for commerce. The Dutch are a trading people and have ventured all over the world.

And of course, also in wooden shoes, and while we were on the job maybe we could sell some shoes.

Wooden shoes were usually thrown into the fire when they were worn out. Making this not only an ideal footwear but also extra fuel to warm your house. Again, we are an economical people. The drawback of this is that it makes it difficult for historians to trace their origins.

Sorry for the disappointment!

Sorry; we don’t really wear them anymore. I hope I haven’t crushed your image of the Netherlands as a clog wearing, windmill inhabiting people.

For most Dutch people the wooden shoe is just an image that is used to promote their country.

There are some farmers who still wear them. But I guess you would be lucky to spot one.

Wooden shoes in Dutch language

If you look for information about the Netherlands, I’m sure wooden shoes are mentioned everywhere. There are also some expressions in the Dutch language about clogs. Here are my five favourites:

  1. Nu breekt mijn klomp

If something happens and you’re really surprised, you can say this.

I don’t know exactly where this comes from, but probably ‘breaking your clog’ is a very surprising thing to happen. Because they are so solid.

  1. Dat kan je op je klompen aanvoelen

When something is obvious, you can feel it in your clogs.

If you can feel it through a thick piece of wood, well than it’s really obvious.

  1. Met de klompen op het ijs komen

Have you ever inspected a clog closely? You see that the bottom is really smooth. Going with clogs on ice is a really risky thing to do.

  1. Een boer op klompen

If someone calls you “a farmer on clogs” you might think it’s a compliment. But the opposite is true. You are being called rude, blunt and direct.

Farmers have the stereotype of being more direct.

Also, totally different but maybe related to this, a boer also means a ‘burp’.

  1. Zijn klompen wegzetten

Putting away your clogs. This means that you have died.

More typical Dutch klompen culture: de klompendans

The klompendans (wooden shoe dance) is a folk dance that is often performed to polka music in the form of a group. The wooden shoe dance as a folkloric event became popular at the beginning of the 20th century, but had already been performed for many years.

The wooden footwear provides an accent that supports the movements, the rhythm and the music.

Fun facts about klompen

  • The oldest known wooden shoe in the world dates from 1230 and was found on the Nieuwendijk in Amsterdam.
  • The oldest image of a wooden shoe can be seen on a 15th century altarpiece by Derick Baegert in a church in Dortmund (Germany).
  • The word ‘sabotage’ is derived from the French word for clogs: les sabots. A machine was blocked by throwing in a wooden shoe (during a strike or because workers were made redundant by the machine). Another explanation is the noisy clattering of people’s clogs when they express their displeasure.
  • There are a couple of places in the Netherlands called De Klomp.
  • The world’s largest wooden shoe made from a single piece of wood is in the Dutch town of Enter. The wooden shoe is 403 cm long, 171 cm wide and 169 cm high.

Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School