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dress to impress

A peek into the wardrobe of Brussels' Manneken Pis

A new museum showcases the outfits, some of which are hundreds of years old.

BRUSSELS’ FAMOUS MANNEKEN Pis statue has been cheekily urinating into its Baroque fountain for 400 years, and for about as long, fans around the world have dressed up the naked little boy in colourful costumes.

From an Elvis Presley white-sequined jumpsuit, to Mickey Mouse, or a gilded 18th century French courtly gentleman, the landmark has an enviable made-to-measure wardrobe, even boasting top designer wear.

Now, a new museum showcases the outfits, some dating hundreds of years old, worn by the bronze little boy taking a very public leak and snapped in selfies alongside millions of tourists.

Curators Catherine Gauthier and Gonzague Pluvinage told AFP that the around 60 centimetre-tall (23-inch) statue, just off Brussels’ Grand Place, won a place in people’s hearts from the start.

Dressing it up soon became a tradition, not so much for modesty’s sake but as a way of affirming a connection with the city at a time of bloody conflict and upheaval across Europe.

The “oldest illustration of a costumed Manneken Pis appears in a painting of 1615 while the earliest outfit we have goes back to 1747,” Gauthier said.

The 1615 painting shows him as a shepherd boy in a white-spotted red cap and blue coat, wearing boots and surrounded by sheep, while urinating with great force and accuracy into a fountain.

“It seems that all the first costumes were provided by kings or the city,” Gauthier said.

The current Manneken Pis originates from 1619 when the Brussels authorities asked sculptor Jerome Duquesnoy to make a statue of a small boy urinating who, according to one of many legends, put out a fire caused by besieging troops, saving the city.

“At that time, images or statues of a child urinating were common,” Pluvinage said.

“There was also a statue in central Brussels of a child spitting and then there was the fountain of the three maids, with water coming from their breasts,” he said.

More than 960 outfits 

“There have been clothes made for other statues like the Virgin Mary or Jesus since the end of the Middle Ages,” Gauthier said.

“The Manneken Pis, however, is the only secular statue in the world to have such a wardrobe, with some 965 individual costumes,” she added.

BELGIUM HUNGARY The Manneken dressed up in a Hungarian Hussar's uniform to celebrate the state visit of the President of Hungary Laszlo Solyom. Thierry Charlier / PA Thierry Charlier / PA / PA

A colourful book, “Garderobe de Manneken Pis” or “The Manneken Pis’ Wardrobe” provides a record, starting with the first written reference to the statue in 1451.

After World War I, donors and costumes became more varied, Pluvinage said.

“They came from all over Europe, some from countries in Africa, in Asia or even from the Americas, as well as various associations, be they folk music, professional or student groups,” he said.

“Nowadays, Manneken Pis gets about 20 to 25 new costumes a year.”

He is dressed about 130 times a year in different old or new outfits often donated by organisations or embassies to mark a special occasion or event, such as the death of Nelson Mandela or the start of football’s World Cup.

BELGIUM MANNEKEN PIS The Manneken Pis wearing an outfit to represent Nelson Mandela. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

His costume for Gay Pride was made by French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier; other outfits are crafted by his “official tailor”.

Some of the costumes are “of exceptional quality”, Gauthier noted.

“The Manneken Pis is a statue and so it is no easy task to get clothes on him — you need a whole system of ties and velcro stickers so they stay on!” she said, adding the little boy had his own official dresser.

Regal gift to make amends 

Among the 130 on display, her favourite is a blue and gold dress suit, complete with the medal of the Order of Saint Louis, given by France’s King Louis XV in 1747 shortly after French troops captured the city.

“Soldiers of the French garrison tried to steal the statue which made the local people furious so Louis XV tried to make amends,” she said.

For Pluvinage, it is the more modern outfits that appeal most.

“Fans of comic strips will find those of Obelix (character from Asterix series) and Mickey (Mouse) really touching.

“And you cannot be unmoved by Amnesty International’s,” he said, referring to the black and white striped uniform, complete with cap, to raise awareness for the plight of prisoners of conscience.

- © AFP 2017.

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