One of the most enduring stereotypes about Germany is the “Traditional German Lederhosen”. The idea that ALL Germans wear leather shorts or leather knee length pants. (I blame Clark Griswald for this). While men and women have worn Lederhosen (leather pants) in Germany throughout history, it’s mainly considered a part of the Tracht (traditional dress) in Bavaria. The history of HOW leather pants went from practical work clothes to high Festival fashion takes some twists and turns. They aren’t as OLD as you think, and the story doesn’t always go where you expect.
Lederhosen in Germany
To put it simply, Lederhosen are leather pants. People living in Central Europe wore some version of them for thousands of years. In 1991, hikers in the Ötztal Alps discovered Ötzi the Iceman, a 5000 year old frozen man… and he was wearing pants made from sheep and goat leather (weirdly, the scientists also figured out he was lactose intolerant, but that’s a whole other story). In many ways, leather pants make perfect sense. They protect the wearer from cold, and from being scratched by bushes and rocks while out in the wild.
But despite the idyllic images of peasants in the fields wearing leather pants, as weaving techniques improved, most people switched over to Loden (wool). According to an article by Andrea Kümpfbeck in the Südkurier (26. September 2018) leather holds moisture, and if you were working outside in a wet environment, they would never really have the opportunity to dry out. Damp pants lead to rheumatism and bladder infections. Plus, leather is stiff (especially if you don’t have the good stuff) as well as expensive.
Still, lederhosen wear like iron, and are easy to clean (just brush them off, and stand them in the corner), so those who needed them, wore them.
The Nobility wears Lederhosen?
In the 16th century, knee britches or culottes became all the rage in France. (Especially among the fashion forward gentlemen who loved to show off their calves…). However, satin breeches were impractical for outdoor activities like hunting. So the upper classes had special knee length Lederhosen designed. The ones they wore made from soft deer hide, and not the heavy goat skin that peasants wore. The cost of deer hide would have been out of reach for peasants, and they weren’t allowed to hunt or deer on on royal lands, so they were stuck with goat.
After a time… the leather culottes fell out of fashion again replaced by trousers (those fickle royals). The new pants actually went down all the way to the ankle. Once again, Lederhosen became “peasant” clothing.
Loden and Denim Backlash
In 1626, Bavarian Prince-Elector Maximilian I set up a dress code, with seven different statuses. Just by looking at a person’s clothing you could tell what group they belonged to: court nobility, knights, minor aristocracy, commercial people, merchants, towns people, and farmers. Basically, if you were a peasant, you couldn’t wear any of the new imported materials, and of course expensive jewelry was off limits. The peasants were back to homespun and Lederhosen. Still, some people got creative. Around the early 1700s, on farms in Bavaria, a new style of Lederhosen appeared. The “a la Bavariose” pants came with a “drop front” (a flap over the fly area). These shorts were seen mostly in the Alpen farms, especially dairy farms, where shorts were practical since there was a lot of sitting on short stools. Dairy maids wore them too! (That’s right, girl lederhosen aren’t a new fad). Knee length leather pants with loads of pockets were handy for foresters and hunters who worked outside and needed to keep their knives handy.
Still, by the 1800s, most peasants across Germany chose Loden, or a fancy new style of material promoted by Levi Strauss, Denim. These fabrics were cheaper and more flexible than sheep leather. Plus, the pants went all the way down the ankles. (So the guys with less attractive calves could wear them without shame). Only Alpen mountaineers and certain rural farmers regularly wore Lederhosen.
Josef Vogl and his Zither. Inconnu, 1883., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
This didn’t sit well with Josef Vogl of Bayerischzell (a community south of Munich, near the Austrian border). He resented the loss of “Bavarian Tradition”, and refused to wear Loden! The schoolteacher bemoaned the loss of authentic Bavarian traditions, so he paid to have special lederhosen made from himself and his Kumpel (buddies), and then in 1883 he formed a club, “The Association for the Preservation of Folk Costumes in Leitzahnthal” (Verein für Erhaltung der Volkstracht im Leitzachthale). Joesef and the group wore their new Lederhosen EVERYWHERE. But when they tried to wear the short pants to church, they were turned away. The local priest (who called Vogl and his group “Kniehösler!) wouldn’t allow the club to take part in any religious processions in their outrageous pants.
Josef protested, and sent a letter to King Ludwig II. Ludwig loved all costumes, and considered himself a man of the people, so he was enthusiastic about Lederhosen. And naturally, once the king gave his approval, the other royals jumped on the bandwagon. All the Wittelsbach relatives (including his Uncle Prince-Regent Luitpold) and the Hapsburgs made a point to wear them. Peasant wear was IN again!
Typical of the Romantic period, the Upper Classes saw themselves as just “regular people”. Of course, when the royals wore peasant wear, it was nothing like ACTUAL peasant wear. They wore softer leather, in light and impractical colors. But they imagined they looked the part… (Sort of like when rich people today put on $600 jeans). These new Lederhosen were decorated with embroidery. And in an effort to suck up to King Ludwig II, they often had his image on the Stegträger (the piece between the suspenders across the chest).
Lederhosen were back.
By 1887, it was announced that Bavarian Lederhosen were the official dress for men attending the Munich Oktoberfest. And after WWI, when Alpine Tourism became trendy, everyone bought a pair of Lederhosen to wear while tramping up the hills looking for Edelweiss. (Souvenir shops at the base of the Alps selling Tracht is not a new thing at all). Impractical light colored leather and high costs made these pants less work clothes, and more like fashion.
After WWII, fewer adults wore Lederhosen, because of the association with the National Socialist party, but sales of Children’s Lederhosen were at an all time high across Germany! Makes sense, Lederhosen were virtually impossible to destroy, and they could be handed down between siblings and beyond.
Today, Bavarian pride brings a new resurgence in Tracht. People in their 20s and 30s in Munich think nothing of sliding into their Lederhosen (or Dirndls) for a night out clubbing. In August of 2013, two Salzburgers even started a movement called #LederhosenDonnerstag, and share images of themselves wearing Lederhosen every Thursday. And the movement is spreading. Anywhere you can wear jeans or pants, you can wear Lederhosen.
Ten years ago all of the tanning for Lederhosen was done in the Far East or Pakistan. Today, people are seeking authentic GERMAN Lederhosen, and are willing to pay the 1000 Euros that they cost. It takes months to properly tan a hide for Lederhosen, then to build and embroider these 5 to 6 Kilo pants. But once you have a pair you own treasure. You can also raid your Opa’s closet or the second hand shops to find a pair with the proper Krachenderne (leather patina).
Fortunately, not all good quality Lederhosen cost so much. Thanks to the resurgence of interest in traditional clothing, companies are making and selling fashion forward Lederhosen at a reasonable price. And the resurgence of interest in Lederhosen and Bavarian Tracht allows designers to create new “modern” styles that look great. Different cuts, new colors, even Lederhosen without suspenders.
If you are shopping for Lederhosen, there are a few things to consider-
They should fit a little tight, but not pinch when you buy them. Leather gives, and you don’t want a baggy bottom!
Regular Lederhosen end just above the knee. Bundhosen look more like those French culottes, and end below the knee.
Deer skin is the most expensive, but they are also the softest. When you buy a pair of these, you are buying a pair of Lederhosen to last a lifetime. Krüger and Stockerpoint make them using traditional tanning methods.
Goatskin are authentic, but a step down from deer. They will wear in decently so they are comfortable. No one will turn their nose up at you.
Suede from a cow is a less expensive option, perfect for someone wearing them only to occasional festivals.
Clean and maintain your Lederhosen
After wearing Lederhosen, air them out in a dry place so that the funk blows away.
Brush off any dirt with a special brush or damp cloth.
If there is an actual stain, you need to have them professionally cleaned by a cleaner who knows how to properly handle leather. DO NOT toss your lederhosen in the washing machine!
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These new styles are perfect for Lederhosen Donnerstag. Casual, comfortable, and fashion forward. These didn’t come from your Opa’s closet. Alpen Wahnsinn sells Lederhosen made from robust Wildbock (wild goat leather). The company is based in Germany.
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Lederhosen for Women
Lederhosen on women is nothing new! Dairy maids have found Lederhosen to be practical for milking for years. Today’s styles are a nicely fitting update, and a fun change when the Dirndl is in the wash…
Bavaria Trachten now has Lederhosen for Women!
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