This silk gown was created with maps made by the Royal Air Force. The maps, printed on both sides, depict parts of Burma, French Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), Siam (now Thailand), India, and China. 
The dress was made to celebrate the liberation of the Netherlands on May 5, 1945. The Netherlands had been occupied by the German Reich (Nazi Germany) since May 1940, and full liberation came only when German forces surrendered. The dress is a costume, not something a woman would wear every day.
Today, the gown is displayed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
  1. This dress was made with maps produced by the “Royal Air Force” during World War II. It is displayed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Both the British and Dutch air forces are known as their nation’s “Royal Air Force.” Can you tell by examining the dress which country’s air force made these maps?

    • Answer

      The maps were made by the British Royal Air Force (RAF). A close examination of the maps shows all the language is English, from country names (French Indo China) to geographic features (Naga Hills).


      Another clue is offered by the time period in which the dress was made. During most of World War II, the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany and did not have an independent air force.

  2. This dress is made of silk. Silk, a luxury commodity, was strictly rationed in Western Europe during World War II. Why do you think Royal Air Force maps were made of silk? Can you think of another military use for silk?

    • Answer

      Silk is much more durable than paper. A silk map is much less likely to wear and tear as pilots and other personnel fold and re-fold it. Many silk maps were “escape maps” issued to air crews in the event they were shot down over enemy territory; silk is much more quiet than paper when folded and unfolded.


      Most of the silk used by the British military was used in the manufacture of parachutes. Silk maps were often made from silk rejected from parachute production.


      Because of the scarcity of silk, British mapmakers began using rayon, a cheaper fabric made from wood pulp, in 1943.

  3. The maps used in the dress represent a wide swath of Southeast Asia, stretching from India to Vietnam and China. Why do you think the dress is on display in the Rijksmuseum? Why would it have significance to Dutch citizens?

    • Answer

      Dutch trading, most famously through the Dutch East India Company, had been a part of the Southeast Asian economy for more than 300 years. In fact, the Netherlands still had a major colony in Southeast Asia in 1945—the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch East Indies gained independence as the nation of Indonesia just three months after this dress was made, in August 1945.

  • The Netherlands was not fully liberated until German forces surrendered, although some eastern regions were liberated months earlier when Allied (Canadian) forces entered the country by crossing the Rhine River.
  • Of the four regions depicted by the maps on this dress, only one—China—is still a nation today. Burma, today also called Myanmar, gained its independence from Great Britain in 1948. Laos (French Indochina) gained independence from France in 1953. Cambodia (part of French Indochina and separate protectorate) gained independence from France in 1953. Vietnam (French Indochina) gained independence from France in 1954. The Kingdom of Siam became the constitutional monarchy of Thailand in 1932, although many western governments did not recognize this until Japanese forces that occupied the region surrendered in 1945. India gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947.
  • Cartographers experimented with different types of ink for silk maps. Ink itself was watery, and ran or blurred when printed on silk. Ultimately, the ink that rendered maps with such topographic accuracy incorporated pectin—a durable carbohydrate found in plants and often used as a thickening agent in jellies and jams.