Written by: Jakob Vandenberghe. Reviewed by: Marthe Bonnez.
“Ne jetez jamais un papier.”
This was the life motto of Ghent University librarian Ferdinand Vanderhaeghen (1830 - 1913) at the end of the 19th century. He stated that every seemingly unimportant piece of paper started to become interesting after seven years, after another seven years it would become important, another 20 years later it would have real value and after a century it would be precious. He was a diligent librarian and under this motto he collected more than one million advertisements, flyers, papers, posters and letters.
More than a century later, Vanderhaeghen turns out to be right: the unique collection of ephemera that he built is now priceless. It provides a broad insight into almost every aspect of daily life in belle-epoque Belgium. Today it’s called “de Vliegen Bladen”, or “les Feuilles Volantes”. Loosely translated this means flying papers -an appropriate name as he literally picked up many documents from the streets, saving them from the trash can.
During the lesson of March 13, 2023, we visited this collection with the entire Fashioning Belgium editorial staff. For once we ignored the beautiful architecture and went straight to the reading room where a selection of fashion-related documents awaited us. The pieces in this collection do not provide big stories or answers like a book does, instead they contain an infinity of trivial details. But don't be deceived, when put together these form the basis for any interesting primary research.
A good illustration of this are the Ghent and Brussels shopping streets. The collection contains many advertising brochures for clothing shops and department stores. Quite soon, we noticed that these always contain an address. By putting these addresses together we discovered that the location of the shopping streets in Belgium has changed little since the late 19th century. The old shops are gone, the fashion has changed somewhat, but the Veldstraat in Ghent or the Louizalaan in Brussels are still the place to be. Without much doubt, the Vliegende Bladen collection will become an important source in future fashion research.