The last traditional toga maker
The Gombert Experience
It’s an early Saturday in December of 2016. Ben Feringa is getting ready to travel to Sweden where he will receive the Nobel Prize for chemistry. But the rim of his cap has come loose. He can’t show up to the ceremony like that. He also needs a new band.
Feringa and his wife head to Gombert’s shop at the Akerkhof, where Feringa also had his original regalia made. But when they arrive, the couple is told that Gerrit Gombert has retired.
Almost two years later, on 30 September 2018, the last old school tailor of Groningen passed away in a care facility in the south of the city.
Gombert, who also provided uniforms for judges, police officers, ministers, and people from the Salvation Army, crafted hundreds of academic robes, caps, and bands. He had once dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but at fifteen he promised his dying father that he would take over the family tailoring business.
Fancy young man
Gombert left grammar school to study tailoring. His wife Truus and daughter Pauline say that the change didn’t traumatise Gombert. After his memorial service, the widow takes out a picture of darkly handsome young man. ‘He was such a fancy young man, which is what attracted me to him.’
Mrs. Gombert, who used to work as a medical analyst, would then work alongside her husband when she got home. Gerrit was intelligent, she says. He had a way with words and strong opinions – which he would often express in letters he sent to the newspapers.
For more than forty years Gombert held a unique position in the academic world. In the 1970s, he walked into the Academy building to figure out exactly how the professorial robes were engineered. He drew up his own pattern. Other speciality clothing stores would go out of business. His family’s once thriving equestrian clothing business, Gomberts Kleermakerij, would eventually wither away. But Gombert would make robes for the rest of his life.
Going to Gombert was a unique experience. Walking into his dress shop was like entering a world where time stood still. People who own a Gombert robe will never forget what it was like to be fitted by the best.
Gombert’s business provided a counter to the fast-paced world outside, says retired professor of theoretical physics Ria Broer. She purchased her robe back in 2003. Broer had heard that Gombert wasn’t too pricey but he would require multiple fittings. She had a busy family at home and was sceptical: was that really necessary? But once she stepped foot into Gombert’s shop, her scepticism dissolved and she gave herself over to the otherworldly atmosphere.
Hans Vedder, who was appointed professor of economic law in 2009, enjoyed the nostalgia in the shop. ‘I admire craftsmen.’ He enjoyed the process. The taking of measurements, the pins, the chalk. ‘He asked if I wanted a pocket in my robe to hold my cell phone. But it was clear from his face that he disapproved of the idea.’
I admire craftsmen
Gombert loved transformation. The academics would show up in jeans and sneakers and then reappear remade moments later, draped in stately black wool, their reflections beaming at him in the mirror.
The tailor wanted to create a distinguished look for the academics. His efforts had an effect on people. Ten years ago, he told UKrant about a female professor came to his shop and stayed in the fitting room for a very long time. When he approached, he heard her crying softly, ‘Daddy would’ve loved this.’
The memories remain: Goffe Jensma, who became professor of Frisian languages and linguistics in 2008, to have a new robe made, went to Gombert to have a robe he’d inherited from a deceased colleague let out. But Gombert persuaded him he should have a new one. Jensma purchased a new robe as well as an overcoat he’d found on the rack.
The tailor also advised that Ingrid Molema, appointed professor of life sciences in 2004, put velvet lapels on her robe. Molema was hunting for regalia with two friends from the pharmacy and chemistry departments. She can still remember how much fun they had in the shop. She has fond memories of how Gerrit Gombert offered to make a custom shirt for her. ‘I have a rather long torso.’
The tailor was a little suspicious of the rambunctious threesome. Female professors weren’t a common sight at that time, and suddenly he had three of them in his shop. Molema: ‘I think I was only the twelfth female professor at the medical faculty.’
He questioned the women sternly about their respective fields. Mrs. Gombert was present at the fitting and loved the whole thing. ‘Whenever we’d run into each other at the supermarket she’d greet me with “Hello professor Molema.”’
Gombert gifted Irene Burgers a set of bands when she accepted her professorship of tax law in 2001. It was cream-coloured instead of white, and a little shorter than was typical. It was something new. ‘It didn’t quite suit me, but it was a sweet gesture’, says Burgers.
I always knew that that Gombert was a gifted regalia tailor
She never really had anyone else in mind to make a robe for her. Across the street from Gombert was the men’s fashion shop De Vries, which also made robes. ‘But I always knew that that Gombert was a gifted regalia tailor. My husband and his sisters got all their horse riding gear from him.’ She dropped by the shop a few times afterwards. ‘I wanted to know how he was doing. He clearly liked that I cared, but he was always busy.’
The right note
Gerrit Gombert always knew how to strike the right tone. He was respectful but never subservient. And he always had a sense of humour. Various clients were told they had a lovely shaped skull when he measured their heads for a cap. The tailor would then add the titbit that famous Dutch philosopher Lolle Nauta had the biggest skull, measuring 62 centimetres in circumference.
In the end, his wife had to thread his needles for him. Gombert refused to admit that his eyes were deteriorating and that certain things had become too hard for him. During these days, he once made the same robe twice. He made his very last robe in the fall of 2016.
Two years ago, Goffe Jensma discovered one of the little hooks on his robe had come lose. He visited the old tailor, who had continued to live in the house above his shop and was given a handful of new hooks. On the way to his ceremony, the Frisian professor repaired his toga himself.
Ben Feringa wasn’t turned away either. Mrs. Gombert took the rim off another beret while they waited. Mrs. Feringa would be able to attach it to Ben’s beret at home.
The display window at the Akerkhof is still there. It features two silk ties – ‘only ten euros’ – breeches for horse riding, an old, yellowing band, a shirt, and some fabric samples: real, tangible memories of the tailor’s shop that officially closed on 1 January 2018.
So where will people go now when they need an academic robe? ‘They can go online to find out’, says the widow Gombert, unwilling to say more. A business woman doesn’t talk about such things. But she is certainly familiar Zlatka, a long-standing tailor shop in Veendam originally established by the wife of an Academy porter. Zlatka has been making robes since 2005 and proudly claims to be the only toga shop in the north of the country.
Gerrit Jan Gombert was born in Groningen on 19 September 1932 and passed away on 30 September 2018 in the same city