The Fashion History of the Dirndl – How Did This Iconic Trachten-Garment Come About?

Fashion History of the Dirndl

In recent years, the Dirndl has been having a revival, we could even say this traditional costume has become part of popular culture. In September, people from all over the world visit the Oktoberfest in Munich. What is less known internationally is that there are many smaller of these festivals throughout summer in the German-speaking regions – they are called Kirtage (the anniversaries of the church), Zeltfeste (tent festivals), Bierfeste (beer festivals) or Waldfeste – depending on the region. The Dirndl and the so-called “Tracht” are the mandatory “uniform” for many of these events. Needless to say, being Austrian, the Dirndl is part of my culture as well, I have worn the Dirndl, or the “Tracht”, many times, there are pictures of me in these outfits as a little girl, we basically grow up with it. In this article, I would like to share how this famous garment came about, what are its historic routes and why it also has a problematic dimension to it.

The Fashion History of the Dirndl Children's Dirndl
Me as a child in the Dirndl

It is important to know that there is no “one” Dirndl – it is very different across the regions of Germany, Austria and Switzerland and it is also strongly influenced by the history of the respective region. As I am Austrian and to keep this article simple, it mainly focusses on the Austrian version of the Dirndl. I have included some information about Bavaria as well as it influenced the Tracht in Austria, but it would be beyond the scope of this article – and probably a mammoth task – to cover every single type of Dirndl and its history.

You can also watch my video here:

Before we start, let me clarify the terms Dirndl and Tracht:

What is “Tracht”?

When talking about the Dirndl, it is inextricably linked with the term „Tracht“. This term used to be commonly used for any type of garment which was worn (“tragen” is the verb related to “Tracht” and means “to wear”) and also included (hair) accessories and jewellery. Clothes reflected a person’s marital status, profession and also religion. Tracht refers to festive clothing which was in stark contrast to everyday clothes. Today, we use the term “Tracht” to refer to clothes with historic roots, which are worn for certain occasions or which are part of a certain fashion trend.[1]

What is the Dirndl?

The Fashion History of the Dirndl Teenage Dirndl
As a student at a local Kirtag – styles and materials of the Dirndl vary across regions.

The Dirndl is a dress with a skirt sewn to the top part, which is a corsage, and in addition, an apron is worn with it. As an accessory, some women wear a “Kropfband”, a choker which initially was worn when women had a goitre. Usually, a blouse is worn underneath this Dirndl. Today, there are many variations – from the short white blouse to lace blouses with long sleeves, for example. Similarly, the fabric for the Dirndl can vary – there are versions with cotton or linen or other fabrics. Fabrics, colours, patterns and details such as the neckline also reflect the region of the Dirndl. However, many of the contemporary versions of the Dirndl (many which are produced overseas for mass production) do not have these “codes” anymore. I would like to emphasize that sewing a Dirndl by hand is not easy and it is considered almost like an art form today, especially because not many people can do it anymore. Needless to say, if you consider buying a Dirndl, I would recommend to contribute to the preservation of this craft and buy from a brand which reflects this philosophy and heritage – it will be a garment you will cherish for a long time.

The upper part of the Dirndl goes back to the corsages of the 17th-century-dresses.

The Dirndl is cut tightly to achieve a feminine silhouette. The corsage goes back to the Renaissance and shaped the female silhouette until the beginning of the 20th century. With the women’s liberation movement, women stopped wearing corsages which became synonymous with oppression. Even the feminist movement of the 1970s encouraged women to free themselves of bras.[2]

Is the Dirndl “Tracht”?

Defenders of the “original Tracht” – however they may define this term – aim to draw clear lines between Tracht and fashion. According to Gexi Tostmann, theorists may be able to separate the two, but in reality, Tracht is fashion and fashion is Tracht. The Dirndl is a natural consequence of the Tracht and cannot be analysed without the knowledge of the latter.[3]

There has always been a certain kind of rivalry between the Tracht and the Dirndl. It could be said that the Dirndl in a certain way reflects modern movements, while the Tracht stands for the old (and maybe “endangered”) traditions. The Tracht reflects an interesting dynamic: Throughout history and until today, well-to-do residents of the cities have had the power to deem the folk culture of the countryside as “old-fashioned” and “backwards”, while at the same time they establish its charm. Throughout history, the Tracht and the Dirndl have reflected economic developments but they have also been instrumentalised by politics.[4]

In general, despite the current popularity of the Trachten and the Dirndl, there are many blanks in the history of the Dirndl itself. One reason may be that the Trachten originally were the clothes of the commoners and farmers whose lives were less documented than the rich elites and aristocrats. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the Dirndl was often not considered as part of the Tracht by many researchers in the field of ethnology and, hence, a lot of information is missing.[5]

Austria is one of the few countries where the Tracht in its original form has survived until today. These areas, the so-called Trachten-islands (“Trachteninseln”) can be found in the Bregenzerwald, or the Montafon, for example.[6]

Historic Development of the Dirndl

Fashion History of the Dirndl Women Playing Tennis in the Dirndl 1919 Gexi Tostmann
Women Playing Tennis in the Dirndl in the Salzkammergut in 1919. Source: Gexi Tostmann / Tostmann 2008, p. 12.

The interest in the Trachten-clothes started in many German-speaking regions of Germany and Austria in the late 19thcentury. The upper class of the Austrian cities spent the summer months in the countryside. From holiday destinations near Vienna, to the Salzkammergut-region in Upper Austria or Tyrol, for example; many of them could now be reached faster by train. Due to these holidays, they developed a kind of nostalgia for the local traditions and garments and appropriated the work uniform of the maids in the countryside. Needless to say, they wanted a more elevated version of the garments using finer fabrics. Later on, the people in the countryside followed this fashion trend from the cities – it could be said they adopted their own clothes in a different style again.[7]

It was also the time of the so-called “Heimatbewegung” which could be freely translated with “movement for the home country”. This nationalist movement fought against the oppression by an absolute state and aristocracy. It emphasized the regional characteristics and had a romantic view of the traditional, the untouched and the countryside. There was a certain new dimension to this romanticizing the countryside: The people living in the cities idealised the life in the countryside and imitated the clothes of the people in the countryside. As a consequence, the “Tracht”, the traditional costume, was developed.[8]

From 1895 onwards, fashion magazines in Austria showed examples of the Dirndl and also promoted the more lightweight cotton fabric instead of linen, loden cloth or wool for it. Therefore, the Dirndl is a consequence of time and economic development. In Gexi Tostmann’s book “Das Alpenlaendische Dirndl” there even is a picture of a group of women who played tennis wearing the Dirndl. The Wiener Frauenzeitung (a Viennese women’s magazine) even reported in July 1912 that the women of the cities who dress in countryside fashion changed their style of Dirndl every season. This underlines that the Dirndl is indeed also fashion.[9]

Archduke John in his frock which served as inspiration for the Trachten-suit.

One of the first Trachten-garments was the frock coat of Archduke John of Austria (Erzherzog Johann) in the 19th century, which was the base for the contemporary “Trachtenanzug”, the Trachten-suit for the men. The Dirndl was a version of what was called “Kidl, Schiazn, Leibl” – a combination of a skirt, an apron and a blouse. But in contrast to this “Kidl-Schiazn, Leibl”-outfit, the Dirndl was made of higher quality materials.[10] 

Due to the Industrial Revolution, the farming society had collapsed and this also had consequences for clothing in the long-run. Fashion trends could spread faster. In general, fashion trends were usually a topic for the well-to-do people in the cities but they eventually also reached the countryside. The small shop in the village soon started to sell printed fabrics. Previously, the farmers made their clothes themselves. Now they bought these more lightweight textiles and did not have to make every garment themselves: finished clothes such as aprons, blouses or socks became available. In general, the Industrial Revolution had democratized fashion – not only because they became more accessible but also easier to wear and to wash. Cotton fabrics substituted linen or loden cloth, shoes substituted boots. Gone were the days of relying on the help of others to get dressed with complicated and cumbersome garments. After World War I, dressmaking patterns allowed accessibility and freedom of fashion.[11] 

An important development which will strongly affect the 1930s was the following: After 1870, the “Heimatschutzbewegung” (“movement for the protection of the motherland”) developed out of the tourist associations and beautification organisations (“Verschönerungsvereine”) with the aim to protect and take care of traditions, customs, festivals and the Trachten. It is also the time when the concept of the “healthy people” (“gesundes Volk”) was shaped and when anything “national” became a not a question of landscape, customs and language but of race with the goal of uniting one “German race”.[12] 

As mentioned above, it was not the farmers themselves who aimed at preserving the clothes but the educated middle-class who longed for authenticity. The more modern the people in the countryside became, the more committed the city elites became to preserve the original customs and garments. The Austrian artist Adolf Loos is said to have – cynically – commented that the elites just wanted to see that the subjugation of the farmers persisted. This “second-wave” of romanticising the Tracht in the second half of the 20th century resulted in the development of associations to preserve the Tracht (“Trachtenvereine”) in Bavaria and shortly afterwards in Austria. Consequently, anything related to these Trachten-associations was heavily influenced by Bavaria until World War I. For example, the Lederhosen, the linen jacket and the tumbled jacket (“gewalkter Janker”) with their roots in Bavaria were introduced to the Salzburg region by Leopold Brandauer.[13]

Influences from Munich, Bavaria

In 1881 Friedrich August von Kaulbach, a painter from Munich, designed a sign at the occasion of the 7thGerman National Shooting Day. He was inspired by a young waitress in a brewery. His sign featured a beautiful young woman in a dress which was very far removed from the previous conventions: The woman wears a dress with a tied-up corsage which accentuates the waist, her neckline is provocatively low for the time and she wears a target disk on her head, a reference to the German shooters, the “Schuetzen”. She would later be known as “Schuetzenliesl” and this provocative sign achieved exactly what the breweries wanted: It successfully caught the attention of their target group, men, and caused intense discussion. Similar to Austria, there was a separation of Tracht and Dirndl in Bavaria with the former being considered traditional and the latter, promoted by the Schuetzenliesl, too revealing. The associated sexual perspective of the garment was not supposed to ever be documented in the research of the Trachten.[14]

The Schuetzenliesl wore a highly controversial outfit.

The Schuetzenliesl became an overall phenomenon and popularized the “Biermadl” (the “beer girl”) in the Dirndl which is still reflected today: the female servers at the Oktoberfest and similar festivals are still dressed in the Dirndl. This “Trachten-trend” also benefitted the brothers Wallach – Jews who came to Munich from the Rhineland and opened a store for regional Trachten in 1900. Their designs were worn by many of the well-to-do Munich residents during their summer holidays in the countryside. The brothers actively shaped popular Dirndl designs themselves as they either sourced fabrics or printed them themselves. They also became an official supplier of the royal court (“Koeniglicher Hoflieferant”) – which was an honour at the time.[15] 

The Wallach brothers had a big influence on the development of the Tracht and the Dirndl.

Like the businesses of many Jews, the store of the Wallach brothers was aryanised in 1938 and the family emigrated to America. The Nazis felt aggrieved that this trade had a strong Jewish presence, as they considered the Trachten as one of the unifying symbols of the German race (see below). Jews like the Wallachs were not allowed to wear them – let alone run a successful Trachten-business. Looking back in history, it comes with a certain irony that a garment which was popularised by Jews has been instrumentalised by the far-right until today. As significant contributors of the Dirndl, the influence of these Jewish brothers cannot be erased from history. The Wallach family managed to claim back their property after 1945 and the business was sold to the famous Trachten retailer Lodenfrey in the 1980s.[16]

And this brings me to the rather problematic side of the Dirndl:

The Dirndl as A Political Tool of the Far-Right

In 1912, Rose Julien travelled from her home in the Bavarian region of Franconia through the German-speaking areas to document the traditional costumes which she published under „Die deutschen Volkstrachten zu Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts. Nach dem Leben aufgenommen.“ (translated freely “The German Traditional Costumes at the Beginning of the 20th Century. Documented from Daily Life.”). In great detail, Julien describes the clothing, hairstyles and accessories. Unfortunately, despite the quality of this work, it has been largely ignored by fashion history or Trachten-researchers. A much more widespread book is “Neue deutsche Bauerntrachten, Tirol” (translated freely “The New Farmer’s Trachten, Tyrol”) published by Getrud Pesendorfer in 1938 and which does not come without a problematic dimension.[17]

Fashion History of the Dirndl Gertrude Pesendorfer and Her Team 1940s
Gertrud Pesendorfer surrounded by her team members in the 1940s, Source: Tiroler Landesmuseum / Volkskunstmuseum Innsbruck.

Pesendorfer aimed at “modernizing” the female Tracht of the Austrian region of Tyrol. What sounds positive at first has a political flip side to it: Pesendorfer was the “Reichsbeauftragte für das Trachtenwesen” (translated freely “Commissioner of the Reich for Matters Related to the Tracht”) and her goal was to create a kind of uniform for the woman of the Reich which did not allow too much individualisation – a common thread across dictatorships. Furthermore, her Dirndl should stand for authentic German and anti-Jewish values. Her viewpoint probably relates back to her childhood. Pesendorfer was the daughter of a businessmen in Innsbruck and frequently saw Jews, British and Americans in the local Tracht – which, obviously, must have ridiculed her. Her Trachten-design for women was a dress made of a narrower skirt sewn together with a top which. It was rather based on the Dirndl of the Salzkammergut-region (Upper Austria), the “Leibkittel”, than the ones of Tyrol where Pesendorfer lived. She also introduced the short white blouse worn under the Dirndl which remains popular until today. Soon her creations were mandatory garments at official functions and festivals. The issue with Pesendorfer’s “reform” and her publications is not only that she shared the views of the Nazis and worked for teh regime but also that even decades later her designs had been used as blueprints for Trachten throughout the German-speaking regions.[18]

In the 1920s and 1930s there was a heavy promotion of anything related to regional “identities”, from regional anthems of the Austrian regions, to the development of (new) Trachten. One example from the Burgenland, the Eastern region of Austria, illustrates this development: In the 1920s, the composer of the region’s anthem, Peter Zauner, toured the country with his music chapel. As the Burgenland-region was very poor at the time, there was no local Tracht which was usually worn for festive occasions. To dress up for the concerts, the musicians chose nicer everyday clothes. At first, people in their own region laughed at them for their outfits, they even called them clowns, but the garments were admired in Vienna, the capital, and other regions. Later on, these garments served for yet another artificial creation – the invention of the Tracht of the Burgenland region.[19]

The Fashion History of the Dirndl Zauner Chapel
Peter Zauner and his chapel in the 1920s – they toured the country in a mix of everyday clothes and “Sunday clothes” (festive clothes). Their outfit later served as the basis for the artificially created Tracht of the Burgenland-region. Source: Susanna Steiger-Moser.

This focus on local identities which started in the late 19th century and intensified in the 1920s was already a reflection of the strong nationalist movements in Austria which culminated in the Austrofascism of 1934-1938 and the National Socialism after 1938. During these two periods of dictatorship, and especially during the National Socialism, clothes reflected the loyalty to the country – fashion became a political tool. The “Burgenländisches Trachtenbuch” (translated freely “Book for the Tracht of the Burgenland”) was published in 1938. Similar to Pesendorfer’s publications, this problematic book served as a basis for the development of many “Trachten” of the villages of the Burgenland even decades later. In addition to signalling solidarity, these garments reflected the societal status of their wearers, gender roles, or certain families.[20]

The Salzburger Festspiele played a crucial role in popularising the Tracht and the Dirndl.

In 1934, the first Heimatwerk of Austria was founded in Graz. This organisation aimed at educating people in the cities about the traditional craftsmanship and the life of the farmers who were hit hard by the economic crisis. Soon, similar organisations were founded across Austria. In Switzerland, there was a Heimatwerk already after World War I. Another important contributor to the popularity of the Trachten was the Salzburger Festspiele, the annual music festival in Salzburg, where actors and well-to-do visitors loved to dress in Trachten-garments. Until today, it is very common to attend the festival in a Trachten-outfit.[21]

Special: The Tracht of the German-Speaking Burgenland

The Fashion History of the Dirndl Festive Clothing Burgenland
People from the Burgenland in festive clothing (the shawls are an indication of that), c. 1937. Source: Susanna Steiger-Moser.

As I mentioned previously, the Tracht differs greatly between regions and it also reflects the economic status of said regions. I am originally from Burgenland, and what is called “Burgenland” today was a region of the Habsburg Empire with a large German-speaking population, Hungarians, Croats and Roma and Sinti. The people were very poor and their clothing had to be multifunctional as the number of clothes they owned was very limited.[22] 

Colours like grey, brown and blue (not too light and not too dark) were preferred, because it was more difficult to tell if they were dirty. Black garments were only worn on festive days and during mourning periods. Furthermore, there were clear rules relating to clothing – certain fabrics and colours where only allowed for those in the higher social classes. When the Austrian monarchy was related to Spain, black and laces became a sign that the wearer belonged to the highest strata of aristocracy. The commoners only had limited opportunities to “dress up”, often they could only do it with the help of accessories. For example, silver buttons reflected that the wearer came from money, laid folds reflected manual skills and time.[23]

While we have an abundance of garments and variations of them today, clothes in former times first and foremost had to fulfil a purpose – such as house work or stable work. Clothing for festive days was only worn on these days and never at home. While there is virtually no difference between what people wear in cities and the countryside today, they differed greatly in the past. The difference in clothing is also reflected in the regional vocabulary: A term which was unknown in the Austrian cities was “Kirchengewand” – clothes for church – another term for the “Sunday clothes” or festive clothes which were worn to attend church on Sundays.[24]

The Fashion History of the Dirndl Children's Dirndl Alltagskleidung Burgenland
Everyday clothes in the Burgenland. (Source: Dorfmuseum Poettsching, Susanna Steiger-Moser)

The difference between everyday clothes and those for festive days was common until the 2nd third of the 20th century. Clothes were expensive and people mostly sewed their everyday clothes themselves. Garments had to be well taken care of and if they were damaged or if there were traces of wear, they were turned inside out, patched or altered – they definitely were not thrown away to an extent like today.[25] 

The apron was an important garment for women as well as men in the Burgenland. Men wore a short apron made of blue linen and there were codes relating to their marital status: Married men wore this apron open, single men tied it on one side with a knot. For the work in the fields, both sides were tied up with knots. Women wore aprons for cooking and household work. Underneath the aprons, women wore a “Brustfleck” (a piece of fabric to cover their bust), or simple blouses.[26]

Tracht and Dirndl Today

Since the 1950s, there have been many efforts to revive the Tracht. Various regions in Austria reformed their Tracht or came up with new – and artificial – Trachten-designs or Dirndls. The annual Oktoberfest in Munich has been one of the major drivers for the global success of the Tracht and the Dirndl. Every year, thousands of visitors dance in the beer tents wearing traditional costumes – some more and some less traditional.[27] 

Unfortunately, the Tracht and the Dirndl keep being instrumentalised by the far-right who call for regular “Trachten Days” or “Dirndlgwand Days”. What looks like a celebration of our heritage is being used to force people back into old – and often anti-democratic – patterns. This is very unfortunate as I love to wear the Dirndl but now I think twice at which occasion I wear it because I do not want to send the wrong signals.[28] 

The Tracht and the Dirndl have also become a part of the fashion scene. Trachten-Labels such as Lola Paltinger or Susanne Spatt have established themselves next to the traditional Trachten houses such as Tostmann or Habsburg. But also the “mainstream” fashion brands have taken up the idea of the Dirndl. In 2023, Vivienne Westwood’s “Gexi Spencer Jacket”, which was clearly inspired by Trachten-jackets, was worn by Margot Robbie during the press tour for the Barbie movie. The label – also collaborated with Tostmann for multiple designs. In 2014, Karl Lagerfeld showed his Trachten-inspired collection for the Chanel Metiers d’Arts at the Leopoldskron Palace in Salzburg (yes, the one where they filmed “The Sound of Music”). Furthermore, quite a few labels have started to create “fusion-Dirndls” like the Munich-based Nohnee which pairs the traditional Dirndl-silhouette with colourful African fabrics. This reminds me that on one of my trips to China, I actually had a dirndl made from Chinese fabric. Maybe this is something I should explore again?

The Fashion History of the Dirndl Dirndl from Chinese Fabric
An interpretation of the Dirndl which I had made in Beijing from Chinese fabrics.

How did you know about the Dirndl? Do you own one? Or are you planning on buying one – maybe I can answer your questions. Let me know in the comments below or on my social channels (Instagram and YouTube). I am always happy to hear from you. 

And speaking of socials, if you like my content, please follow me on Instagram and YouTube, I appreciate it. 😉


Special thanks to Susanna Steiger-Moser, Gexi Tostmann, Tiroler Landesmuseum / Volkskunstmuseum Innsbruck.


Footnotes

[1] Steiger-Moser 2009b, Tostmann 2008, p. 23.

[2] Steiger-Moser 2018, p. 2

[3] Tostmann 2008, p. 23.

[4] Tostmann 2008, p. 23, Wallnoefer 2020, p. 115.

[5] Expert interview with Susanna Steiger-Moser, 20 August 2023, Wallnoefer 2020, p. 115.

[6] Tostmann 2008, p. 23.

[7] Expert interview with Susanna Steiger-Moser, 20 August 2023, Tostmann 2008, p. 12, Wallnoefer 2020, p. 115-6.

[8] Steiger-Moser 2018, p. 1, Tostmann 2008, p. 23-24.

[9] Expert interview with Susanna Steiger-Moser, 20 August 2023, Tostmann 2008, p. 12, Wallnoefer 2020, p. 115-6.

[10] Steiger-Moser 2018, p. 1, Tostmann 2008, p. 23-24.

[11] Expert interview with Susanna Steiger-Moser, August 2023, Tostmann 2008, p. 24., Wallnoefer 2020, p. 107-1011.

[12] Tostmann 2008, p. 25.

[13] Tostmann 2008, p. 24., Wallnoefer 2020, p. 107-109.

[14] Wallnoefer 2020, p. 141-142.

[15] Wallnoefer 2020, p. 141-146.

[16] ibid.

[17] Tostmann 2008, p. 27-29, Wallnoefer 2020, p. 107, Wallnoefer 2011, p. 154-156.

[18] ibid.

[19] Expert interview with Susanna Steiger-Moser, 20 August 2023, Steiger-Moser 2018, p. 2, Steiger-Moser 2014 

[20] ibid.

[21] Tostmann 2008, p. 20+25.

[22] Steiger-Moser 2018, p. 2

[23] ibid.

See Also
Monday Postcard 145 Living in the Countryside

[24] Steiger-Moser 2018, p. 2-3, Steiger-Moser 2009a

[25] ibid.

[26] Steiger-Moser 2009a.

[27] Expert interview with Susanna Steiger-Moser, 20 August 2023.

[28] Wallnoefer, p. 249-251.


Sources

Franz C. Lipp/et. al, Tracht in Österreich. Geschichte und Gegenwart, Wien 2004.

Susanna Steiger-Moser, Burgendlandrock – Überlegungen – unveröffentlichtes Manuskript, 2018.

Susanna Steiger-Moser, Rollup – Teil der Ausstellung “Baousterz und Bubikopf. Burgenländische Geschichte(n) zwischen 1933 und 1938”, Wanderausstellung seit 2014, gleichnamige Publikation in : Lisa Sinowatz, Susanna Steiger-Moser (Hg.) “Baousterz und Bubikopf. Burgenländische Geschichte(n) zwischen 1933 und 1938”, in: Wissenschaftliche Arbeiten aus dem Burgenland, Bd 151, Eisenstadt 2014.

Susanna Steiger-Moser, Burgenlandlandrock, Rede Juni 2012, HBLA Oberwart.

Susanna Steiger-Moser, Bekleidung und ihre Bezeichnung in der Mundart, in: Dauerausstellung Ortsmuseum Pöttsching 2009. (Steiger-Moser 2009a)

Susanna Steiger-Moser, Pflege der Volkstracht, des Volksliedes und des Volkstanzes, in: Dauerausstellung Ortsmuseum Pöttsching 2009. (Steiger-Moser 2009b)

Wolfgang Meighörner/et. al., Getrud Pesendorfer und die Trachtenerneuerung. Glossar zu einem Forschungsprojekt, Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum, Innsbruck 2019.

Gexi Tostmann, Das Dirndl : alpenländische Tradition und Mode, Wien/München 2008.

Elsbeth Wallnoefer – Tracht macht Politik, Innsbruck-Wien, 2020.

Elsbeth Wallnoefer, Geraubte Tradition. Wie die Nazis unsere Kultur verfälschten, Augsburg 2011.

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