If you have ever gone to or looked at pictures of a traditional German celebration, you’ve probably seen women dressed up in dirndls. The dirndl is not merely one element of the outfit, it’s the whole shebang. It consists of a close-fitting bodice with a low neckline, a blouse worn under the bodice, a high waisted skirt, and an apron.
In addition to being popular in Germany, it was also worn in Austria, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, and Alpine regions of Italy. It is known as the clothing of Alpine peasants wore between the 16th and 18th centuries. However, it was adapted by middle and upper classes as a popular fashion in the 19th century.
Today, it is mostly limited to occasions of traditional dress such as festivals and celebrations.
What’s Up with the Name?
The word dirndl is a diminutive of Dirne which now generally means prostitute, but it originally meant ‘young girl’. It can also be substituted with tracht. While some use the word tracht to refer to the traditional variation of the outfit, and dirndl to refer to the more modern, most people use the terms interchangeably.
The dirndl evolved quite naturally as it was similar to the bodice/apron/blouse styles that were common in Europe during the 16th through 18th centuries. They were originally considered peasant fashions and reserved for people of the lower class. However, they were also adopted into the royal court in the 17th century.
When worn by the upper class, dirndls were made to look more elegant with more vibrant colors and expensive materials. Accessories could also be added but over accessorizing was considered tasteless.
The Fight for the Dirndl and Other Folk Fashions
In the 19th century, folk fashion began to go out of style. This was accompanied by a movement to preserve traditional costumes. In Germany, the movement to keep traditions alive was known as Trachtenbewegung or the Tracht Movement. A more widespread movement to preserve cultural looks was the Romantic Movement.
The movements promoted traditional dress in several ways. Cultural costumes were worn at celebrations and parades. They were also worn for weddings and court functions. In the 19th century, it became customary for members of the royal courts in Austria and Bavaria to wear folk costumes.
The Dirndl Rises Again
Eventually, the dirndl became so widely adopted, it was more than just a fashion of the romantic movement. It became popular among wealthy classes, albeit with more expensive materials and a shape that was optimally flattering to the female figure.
Julius and Moritz Wallach, Jewish brothers from Germany, capitalized on the trend by making dirndls for anyone who was interested in owning one. They became big sellers during WWI as they were an affordable take on a simple summer dress. They were also used in theater, in shows like the Sound of Music and Heidi.
The show business and dirndl connection made the dirndl a popular fashion for American women in the early to mid-1900’s.
Connection with the Nazis
When Hitler took over Germany, the dirndl was used to symbolize the ultimate hard-working, fertile German woman. Jews were forbidden to wear them. As a result, the Wallachs were forced to close their business. Their brother Max who worked with them, was interred at a concentration camp, and murdered at Auschwitz.
Viktor von Geramb, who promoted the dirndl, lost his position at a university. He was able to regain it after the defeat of the Nazi regime in 1945.
The National Socialist Women’s League established the office of the “Reich Commissioner for German Costume” under the leadership of Gertrud Pesendorfer. Pesendorfer updated the dirndl removing the collar for more cleavage exposure, puffing the sleeves, shortening the skirt, and accentuating the waist with tighter lacings and buttons.
She claimed this was a way to ‘de-catholicize the outfit. However, her claims were criticized since the outfit had already been established as fashionable in certain circles.
The Decline and Comeback of the Dirndl
The dirndl’s association with the Nazis caused a decline in popularity after WWII. However, it was still occasionally worn for festive occasions.
However, it made somewhat of a comeback when it was worn by Silvia Sommerlath (Queen Silvia of Sweden) during the 1972 Summer Olympics. Sommerlath wore it to promote her Bavarian identity and soon enough, everyone was wanting to wear one again.
It became even more popular in the 1980’s as it was seen as a symbol of the environmental movement because it was made with natural materials.
By the late 1990’s the dirndl was back in all its glory. Most women in Austria and Bavaria had at least one in their wardrobe. It was also praised by American designer Vivienne Westwood at a fashion event in Austria. “If every woman wore a dirndl, there would not be any ugliness,” she said.
Dirndls were also brought back into festivals and celebrations with the enthusiasm for traditional dress increasing every year.
People feel that the modern boost in popularity is due to an increased confidence in German self-identity now that the crimes of the Nazi party have been somewhat forgotten.
Others link it to the insecurity caused by globalization. It shows that people are missing traditional values. It brings them back to the days when things seemed simpler.
The dirndl has had its shares of ups and downs, but it remains a popular cultural and fashion item today. It honors the German traditions while being a flattering and lovely garment. Would you consider adding one to your wardrobe?
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