Wooden shoes have become a Dutch cliché—a symbol of the low-lying Netherlands’ past. Even their name, klompen (yes, the singular is klomp), has a fun and oh-so-Dutch ring to it. But it turns out that the clunky shoes are a dying art form. As Maude Brulard reports for the AFP, only about 30 Dutch wooden clog-makers remain.
That’s the estimate of an industry official, who tells the AFP that the tradition "is almost dead." Despite their iconic look and their important role in Dutch history, wooden clogs are now mostly made for tourists, not everyday wear. The official tells the agency that 300,000 pair of shoes are made every year, but mostly for foreign buyers. And despite multigenerational clogmakers who have passed down their art, fewer and fewer people are interested in taking up a craft that looks doomed.
The famous footwear’s decline has been swift and sad. The earliest-known record of the sturdy shoes in Amsterdam dates back to around 1230 AD—a time when medieval streets and the unrelenting climate of Northern Europe took their toll on people’s feet. For farmers and fishermen, they were especially useful, and the wooden, handcrafted clogs were so sturdy they were often passed down from generation to generation along with clogmaking wisdom.
Though wooden shoes are still worn by some farmers and outdoor workers or on traditional occasions, they’re not exactly in vogue for everyday wear. Sometimes associated with rural areas or poverty, the shoes fell out of fashion as leather shoes became the norm.
But the Dutch tourism industry picked up where fashion left off. Today, you can visit a clog museum in Zaandam or sit in a huge clog in front of tourist shops all over the country. But despite the fact that they’re still purchased by customers (and that the shoes survived an EU challenge claiming they weren’t safe for the workplace), demand is declining. So next time you see a wooden shoe, realize that it’s not just a cliché—rather, it’s a symbol of a disappearing and colorful Dutch history.