A classic and rather tasteful modern dirndl that can be seen at the Oktoberfest in Munich or the Bavarian Festival in Frankenmuth each year! Why did I call it modern, you may ask! A good question! We will get to this in a second!
But first, what are the ladies in this picture wearing?
Would you consider these dirndls? They kind of look like it, don’t they? But your gut feeling tells you something seems off? Agreed! They might resemble dirndls with their close-fitting bodice, white blouse, low neckline and high waisted skirt. But what about the apron? Compare it to the apron of the modern dirndl above! It’s tiny! And are there any other differences that catch your eye?
You’re right, the blouses don’t cover the shoulders, the skirts are much shorter, and the bodice looks kind of minimalistic.
In my opinion, these aren’t dirndls, these are Halloween costumes or fancy dresses. Dresses like these can be seen at the Oktoberfest in Munich, but there is a huge controversy on whether they are fun and cheeky, or a farce and a disgrace to so-called authentic dirndls. But that raises the question of what an authentic dirndl looks like.
Maybe like this?
This dirndl looks entirely different from the two mini dresses above, doesn’t it? But it does resemble the modern dirndl that we first looked at, with a few significant differences. It has long sleeves and a long skirt and apron. The shoulders are covered by a light scarf, and a hat and shoes are also part of the costume.
This dirndl is actually a part of the Alpine traditional garment or folk costume – Tracht – of the Upper Bavaria region. It can be considered historic or traditional but is still worn today on very special occasions like processions and events that are related to tradition and regional pride.
That is why the first dirndl that we looked at is modern. It has been adapted and become a part of popular fashion. In this picture from the 1970s, you can see that the 70s style found its way into the way these dirndls look.
As you can see, modern dirndls come in all colors and fabrics and can be worn by anyone regardless of age, occasion, place of origin, and marital or social status. Back in the day, there was an outfit for different occasions like work or church, and dirndls from the same region had small alterations that indicated the exact village the wearer came from.
The modern dirndl is not specific to Upper Bavaria anymore, it is now worn across and stands for the entire country of Germany as a fashion item (mostly worn for Octoberfest). Even abroad it is considered the German traditional dress.
It might come as a surprise though, that not only Upper Bavaria has its traditional folk costume, but about every region in Germany does. And there is so much variation and diversity in these dresses! Here are a few from different regions in Germany:
All these dresses could have ended up as the German dress, as the dirndl did, except they didn’t.
The dirndl, as part of the Alpine Tracht, as well as all other Trachten in Germany has its roots in the pre-industrial era as garments worn by rural populations to show regional and social belonging. There was a lot of ethnic diversity in the German-speaking regions that were all part of the Holy Roman Empire. Therefore traditional costume developed so differently in Frisia, Northern Germany than in the Black Forest or the Alpine region.
And Germany was not the only European country to develop traditional costumes. Here are some examples from other European countries:
This couple is wearing the Bohemian (today part of the Check Republic) Kroj. Doesn’t it resemble the dirndl a lot?
And what about this traditional Swedish costume?
The real bloom of the traditional costume was the 19th century with the upcoming nationalist and Romantic movement in Europe. Clothing was seen as a way to enforce and reaffirm national identity and the rural character of this way of clothing gave romanticists something to dream about. The history and origins of traditional costume were researched and the wearing it actively promoted.
During the Third Reich, the Nazis also made use of the Tracht to promote their Germanic ideals and after the Second World War, traditional clothing was associated with this chapter of German history for a couple of decades, making the dirndl and other traditional outfits rather unpopular.
Only the dirndl experienced a revival from the 1980s onwards. First only in Bavaria, but with the growing popularity of the Oktoberfest and the Oktoberfest tourism also in other parts of Germany. The dirndl became a synonym for the German traditional dress, and it became popular among the environmental and anti-nuclear movement because of its plain and rural character.
Today, a new generation of Germans are rediscovering their love for the dirndl and its male counterpart, the lederhosen, as they are slowly and cautiously rediscovering their national pride and identity.
The Trachten of other German regions are not nearly as popular, but they are not dead either. They are preserved and cultivated by local Trachten associations and worn on special occasions. But they did not make it into popular fashion, like the dirndl and they are not known outside of Germany and don’t stand for German culture as the dirndl does.
So, in a way, the dirndl is definitely the German dress. But now we know that there is and used to be so much more to traditional German attire than the dirndl and lederhosen which only recently became a symbol for Germany as a whole.
Sonya is an FHA intern and a German graduate student pursuing museum studies.
We are proud to present History at Home! History at Home is a virtual learning program that includes fun educational content, including a blog and our podcast. Even if you cannot visit us in person, there is still so much to do!