Dress to Impress

The IHLIA collection

IHLIA LGBTI Heritage collects, keeps and makes accessible information about homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and intersexuals. IHLIA keeps documents and objects about the LGBTI community in all its facets: their history, their world and their culture. 

The IHLIA collection is highly diverse in terms of origin and types of material. It is not confined to the Netherlands, but has an international scope, with material from more than 150 countries and in more than 60 languages. The collection includes archives from individuals and organisations, books, magazines, posters and audiovisual material, and also textiles and objects, such as T-shirts, button badges and collar pins. 

The photographic collection is an important and frequently consulted part of the IHLIA collections. It currently comprises approximately 15,000 photos. Most of these are from the Netherlands and date from the period 1960-2010. The main subjects depicted on these photos include activism, events, parties and nightlife, but there are also a number of portraits and artistic photos. 

The Vos photo collection

IHLIA has held the Vos photo collection since 2018. It is an excellent extension of and supplement to our photo collections, in terms of period, provenance and subject matter. The Vos Collection contains more than 4,000 photos, mainly dating from the years 1930-1950, with photographs from Germany as well as England and the United States. They are amateur photos, largely of men in military uniform.

The Vos Collection is named after the collector Gerrit Jan Vos (1962-2017). Vos was a homosexual man who taught fashion in Rotterdam and Bielefeld, in Germany, and collected photos in his spare time. His fascination with fashion, uniforms and male beauty helped shape his photo collection. Following his death, Gerrit Jan Vos’ photo collection was gifted to IHLIA. Most of the photos are black-and-white and date from the end of the 19th century up to the 1960s. The collection arrived at IHLIA unsorted and with no descriptions. The photographs were catalogued in the summer of 2019 by an intern, Jordan Browne, and the then head of photo collections Jasper Wiedeman. This exercise culminated in a report entitled IHLIA LGBT Heritage Project, Gerrit Jan Vos Collection.  

The photos in the Vos Collection cover a wide range of themes and topics, from buildings to families; but a large proportion are of men in uniform, including from the Second World War, with lots of German military and paramilitary subjects. They depict soldiers alone or in couples or groups. It is impossible to determine precisely whether the men portrayed in the photos were homosexual or bisexual, but many photos in the collection do have a homosensitive or homoerotic undertone. The body language and gestures depicted in these photos suggest a form of male intimacy which can be interpreted as a gay or queer gaze or, looking through rose tinted spectacles, as homoerotic.     

In 2020 IHLIA applied for a grant from the Mondriaan Fund for a project entitled: Homoseksualiteit in en rond de Tweede Wereldoorlog, digitalisering en ontsluiting collectie IHLIA LGBTI Heritage (‘Homosexuality in and around the Second World War; digitalising and enabling access to HLIA LGBTI Heritage collection’). The bid was submitted in response to an open call for applications under the banner ‘Digitalisation in the context of 75 years of Freedom’. After the grant was awarded, in addition to lots of other relevant material from the IHLIA collection, 4,318 photos from the Vos Collection were digitised and made available in digital format at IHLIA.

Dress to Impress

What can you expect in this publication? In Dress to Impress – The photo collection of Gerrit Jan Vos (1962-2017), different authors explore Gerrit Jan Vos’ photo collection from varying perspectives, each from the basis of his or her own expertise: artists and researchers, historians, photographic conservationists and experts in the field of fashion or military uniforms.  

The book opens with a short biography of Gerrit Jan Vos by Berry Feith. Chapter 1 then zooms in on the Vos photo collection. Hans Roosenboom examines the collection from the perspective of a (photograph) collector, while Matthijs de Die le Clercq explores the Vos Collection from the perspective of the Second World War. 

Chapter 2 focuses on the military uniform as a source of power and eroticism; in short: Dress to Impress. Els de Baan writes about the link between the military uniform and fashion. Ton of Holland uses an interview technique to talk about the eroticism of uniforms, and Matthijs de Die le Clercq describes all the ins and outs of the German military uniform.

Chapter 3 focuses on male friendships among soldiers and homosexuality in the armed forces. Pablo Lerma explores how the Vos Collection can be viewed from a queer perspective. Ton of Holland again uses an interview technique to talk about the armed forces as a refuge for gay men in the first half of the 20th century, and about hidden homosexual codes. Jan Willem Tellegen describes male friendships and homosexual relationships among German soldiers in the Third Reich. 

Finally, the book also contains something for the eye, with a large number of photos from the Vos Collection. 

Old photographs from the past can be dry and dusty or they can be wonderful; they only acquire meaning through stories, imagination and context. Hopefully, the stories and context in Dress to Impress, together with your own imagination as the reader, will help give meaning to the photographs from the Vos Collection.

Amsterdam, March 2023

Gerrit Jan Vos with students at the Willem de Koning Academy, year unknown. Photo: Roelof Mulder


IHLIA Outside the Box is een online plek om verrassingen uit de lhbti- geschiedenis te ontdekken en bijzondere IHLIA-projecten te volgen.