Recently I posted an image of Rare Dirndl’s beautiful “Empress Dirndl”. The bodice of this chic and sophisticated looking Dirndl covered more than the average Dirndl and required no blouse. The reactions were mixed and rather vocal…with many stating” that’s NOT a Dirndl”! Why not? “A TRADTIONAL German Dirndl needs to be low cut with a blouse and apron.”
The conversation about the dress stuck with me. What exactly IS the definition of a Dirndl? How traditional is it? And do variations change it to something else? I did some digging through books (Traditional Couture) and online sources, then I reached out to my friend Erika Neumayer of Rare Dirndl. She studied fashion and has spent over 10 years producing amazing fashion forward Couture Dirndls for the American market. Her exquisite designs have been praised both in the US and in Germany. (Let’s just say, she knows what she’s talking about).
I asked her, how does she define the Dirndl. Erika answered, “I define a Dirndl as the cultural dress associated with Bavaria, Austria, and parts of Switzerland that can typically be identified as a full skirt, apron, and blouse.” She went on to say, “However, there are Dirndls that are all one-piece with sleeves attached, no apron, etc. For me, and my brand, I like to have at least 2 of the 3 typical elements included in the design. For example, a Dirndl that can be worn without a blouse and has an apron, or a dirndl that can be worn without an apron but has a blouse.”
Erika and I talked a little more about Dirndl fashion and where it’s going… especially in America… but I think we need to start with a little history.
Traditional German Dirndl History
The Dirndl, as a distinct clothing item, has been around for a while as a work dress. So how did that dress become the “traditional” Bavarian dirndl dress worn at Oktoberfest? First a little history.
People in Germany have worn Tracht, or traditional clothing since the 15th century. What someone wore told you everything about them in a glance… social status, profession, even marital status. Laws were enacted to limit the use of certain materials and colors to specific classes. Even the use of adornment was limited to upper classes. (There is an old Bavarian saying, “the wealthier the woman, the more silver on her chest”, referring to the Charivari women wore on their bodice). When these laws were relaxed, variations began to creep in. Still, elements of traditional Tracht made identifying people by their geographical origins straightforward. (For more history of Tracht, and the beautiful variations, Traditional Couture). People wore formal Tracht to celebrations, Festivals, and weddings.
(Side note- for the first Oktoberfest in 1810, no one wore Tracht… the crowd wore fashion styles imported from France…And many wore black.)
Young maidservants wore simple outfits called “Leiblgwand” or “Dirndlgewand”. (Here’s where I got to dig out the Bavarian dictionary… ‘Gwand’ is an outfit… ‘Leibl’ is the bodice…a ‘Dirndl’ at that time meant the young maidservant.) An important thing to note. The Leiblgwand was never fancy or colorful, it was practical. The apron might be made from a worn-out bedsheet. These were working clothes. Work clothing WASN’T fashionable and would never be worn to Festivals. (No more than you would wear a pair of coveralls to a wedding). Think of the Leiblgwand as a fitted Pinafore. This dress was worn over a blouse, and the dress itself would be protected by an apron. Washing a blouse and apron is easier than washing the whole dress. (Remember, laundry in the 19th century took a lot more effort than just dumping clothes and detergent in a machine and pressing the button, and servants didn’t have too many changes of clothing.)
How did the Dirndl Change from Work Clothing to Fashion
There were a few different forces at work.
After the Napoleonic period ended in 1815, a Nationalistic movement took hold in German Empire (it wasn’t Germany yet, that happens in 1871). People began to seek and emphasize Heimat and local traditions. Historians like Felix Joseph von Lipowsky cataloged Bavarian art and cultural history, including a “Collection of Bavarian National Costumes” so they would not be lost.
Bavarian Prince Regent Luitpold apparently loved wearing Alpine clothing and made the clothing fashionable among the upper classes. Aristocrats began wearing Lederhosen on hunts and when visiting the countryside.
In the 1880s, Josef Vogel formed the first Trachverein (Tracht Society). His fear was that Bavarian traditions would be disappear or be lost to changing fashion, and he sought to preserve them by wearing Lederhosen (read more about that here). His was only the first Trachtverein… others followed to save their style of clothing.
Also, in the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution didn’t just “modernize” Germany, it changed the landscape and lifestyles of the people. Cities grew as people left the land for jobs. Life seemed to move faster. The Romantic movement grew as a response to the industrialization of life. Romantics sought nature, a simpler time. It became fashionable for those who could afford it, to take vacations in the countryside, with invigorating hikes, and enjoyment of scenic vistas. While there, the upper middle-class women discovered a new style of dress worn by Dirnen (young maidservants), and they wanted one too.
But they didn’t want one made from old bed sheets.
So, there was a collision of Nationalistic movement, Romantic Movement, and Royalty wearing upscale versions of the “clothing of the people”…
The time was right for brothers Julian and Moritz Wallach. In 1890 they moved from Bielefeld to Munich where they started selling reproductions of folk dresses to theater companies. They did so well, they were able to open a boutique selling upscale versions of country dresses. These “Dirndl” style dresses were made from silks and embroidered materials. Puffy sleeved blouses added to the summery country feeling of the look.
Then came the tipping point.
In 1896, Oskar Blumenthal wrote a play called Im Weißen Rößl, the story of a Berliner who vacations at a resort in the Alps (the Weißen Rößl is a real place). The costumes were provided by the Wallach brothers. Then in 1930, the simple play was turned into a humorous Operetta… and the world went nuts for it. In Berlin the shows sold out. (I mentioned this to my parents, and they started singing one of the songs! It’s a movie now, so you can still enjoy it!) Fun songs and impressive staging lured in customers… but it was the costumes that people went nuts for. And the Wallach brothers were there to supply the new demand. Suddenly, everyone wanted a Dirndl!
And not just in Germany, the when the Operetta crossed the Atlantic, it even spurred a Dirndl fashion trend in the United States. Coco Chanel even got into the Dirndl business!
Dirndls were associated with “Heimat”, a type of provincial culture associated with love of pastoral ways. And they fit in beautifully with the post WWI longing for a return to a simpler time. Sadly, in the 1940s, the Traditional German Dirndl (and Lederhosen) were promoted by the Nazi party as a part of the Nationalist German identity. And post WWII, this tamped down all desire to wear the “traditional” styles.
And then came the 1972 Olympics! And suddenly, the Dirndl was hot again!
By the 1990s, there was an incredible resurgence in Bavarian tradition, and you could find the Dirndl (and Lederhosen) all over Munich. Designers created modern and updated styles using beautiful fabrics to create lush looks.
And now, it’s hard to imagine Oktoberfest without them.
Back to Erika…. I had a few more questions for her.
Where is Dirndl Fashion Going?
Designers are taking the traditional German Dirndl and transforming it into High Fashion. I asked Erika… Where Do you see the Dirndl styles going? “Currently in Germany and Austria, Dirndl styles are trending back to simple, more peasant-inspired styles. I am seeing a lot of small print cottons, high necklines, buttons, and peplums. In the United States, trends are far more elegant and fancy styles. I’m seeing folks really love wearing lace and brocade fabrics, but at the same time, also being drawn to solid colors.”
See more of what’s hot in 2022 Oktoberfest Fashion here!
Besides customizing for individuals and using new fashion forward colors, how are your Dirndls different from those you might find in Munich? “I design Rare Dirndls specifically for the North American market, meaning I can focus on creating products that are on trend in the US & Canada, as well as how those people will use and enjoy the products. The most obvious difference is my choice of fabrications for the Dirndls. Most traditional Dirndls that come out of Germany are made of cotton or wool. These fabrics are not practical for most Americans and how they are wearing their dirndls. I use polyester fabrics for the skirts, because they do not wrinkle and can be easily cared for. I use a cotton/poly blend for blouses so that there is no need for excessive ironing. The skirt on a Rare Dirndl is more slim fit, still pleated and full, but not as much bulk. These are just some of the modifications to the design I’ve made to better suit the American market.”
Here in the United States, I’m seeing a huge interest in ancestry and heritage. You’ve attended German Festivals your whole life, why do you think so many women are reaching for traditional German Dirndls? “I’ve always considered music, food & drink, and clothing to be the three major things that help people connect with a culture. And if someone is looking to connect more deeply with their own heritage, leaning on these things is the easiest (and most fun) way to do it. I think German-Americans love wearing Dirndls because of those three things, clothing is the most visual and outward way to express your heritage to others.”
That said, “There are of course, lines that can be crossed when it comes to cultural appropriation, but those lines are based on the individual. I find it offensive when I see people wearing what is clearly a “sexy beer wench” costume as a Dirndl, but other than that, I love seeing how people make the dirndl their own.”
“And another for an Indian woman made from her old saris”.
“I think if you can combine things like that into one garment to make you feel your best…
then that is THE BEST!”.
I love that… Rare Dirndls are made to make you look and FEEL your best!
Bringing the Traditional German Dirndl to a full circle….
Recently Erika introduced the Everyday Dirndl… a simple, solid colored, easy care Dirndl that can be worn anywhere and everywhere. This washable Dirndl looks back to the original purpose. A lovely dress that can be worn for work or play… and is flattering and pretty on every figure. It comes in….. colors: Amethyst, Black, Matte Silver, Red, Periwinkle, and new for Fall Burnt Orange, Forest Green, and Garnet! (I love the Garnet!)! Wear them to work, the grocery store… or dress it up for a festival.
Who knows, maybe we can start another Dirndl trend in the United States!
Special thanks to Erika Neumayer of Rare Dirndl for sharing her knowledge of Dirndls with me (I have several of her fabulous designs hanging in my closet… and I treasure them all!