A dirndl (German: [ˈdɪʁndl̩] (listen), is the name of a feminine dress which originated in German-speaking areas of the Alps. It is traditionally worn by women and girls in southern Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Alpine regions of Italy. A dirndl consists of a close-fitting bodice featuring a low neckline, a blouse worn under the bodice, a wide high-waisted skirt and an apron.
The dirndl is regarded as a folk costume (in German Tracht). It developed during the 18th century, based on the traditional clothing of Alpine peasants.. Today it is generally considered the traditional dress for women and girls in the Alps, and has particular designs associated with different regions. The usual masculine tracht counterpart of the dirndl is Lederhosen.
In the 19th century the dirndl was adopted by the upper and middle classes as a fashion style, and has subsequently spread as a fashion outside its area of origin. There are many varieties of adaptations from the original folk designs. The dirndl is also worn as an ethnic costume by German diaspora populations in other countries.
Dirndl is a diminutive of Dirn(e). Originally Dirne meant 'young woman', although in current German, this word is now mostly used to mean 'prostitute'. In Bavaria and Austria, Dirndl can mean a young woman, a girlfriend or the dress. The dress can for clarity be called Dirndlkleid (literally 'young woman's dress') or Dirndlgewand ('young woman's clothing').
Speakers of German differ in the distinction they make between the dirndl and Tracht. Some speakers use the second word for a dirndl only when the design corresponds to traditional folk costume. Many other German-speakers describe the dirndl interchangeably as "Dirndl" or "Tracht", regardless of whether the design is traditional or modern.
The bodice (in German Mieder or Leiberl) is tight to the body, with a low neckline (décolletage). It is typically made in a single piece, with the join in the front centre, secured by lacing, buttons or a hook-and-eye closure or a zip. A zip can also be on the back or the side. Traditionally, the bodice was made from dark heavy cotton, so that it would be hard-wearing. In more modern designs, it may be made from cotton, linen, velvet or silk. The material is coloured or printed. The neckline (Ausschnitt) of the bodice is traditionally round or rectangular (balconette). In more modern designs, it is also commonly high, V-shaped, heart-shaped or extra deep. The bodice often has embroidered decoration, especially when worn for public events.
The skirt (Rock) is full, with folds gathered in at the waist. Before the 1930s, it was separate from the bodice, but since then the two have been sewn to one another. Originally the skirt was long, but in more modern designs it is typically mid-length. Miniskirt versions also exist. Traditionally, the skirt has a pocket on the side or in front, which is hidden under the apron.
The blouse (Bluse) modifies the overall effect of the dirndl. A blouse with a low neckline combines with a bodice with low neckline to accentuate décolletage, whereas a blouse with a high neckline creates a more understated effect. In the more traditional dirndl designs, the blouse neckline is at the base of the throat (a so-called jewel neckline). Other popular necklines are V-shaped, balconette or heart-shaped. The blouse is cropped just above the waist and normally white. Typical materials are cambric, linen or lace. Short puff sleeves are most typical, although narrow sleeves (short or long) are also common.
The apron (Schürze) is attached to the skirt and covers only the front of the skirt. Traditional apron designs vary according to local tradition and are typically only a single colour; in modern designs, the designs are more elaborate.
Traditional dirndls vary in design between regions and even villages. The different details may indicate the place of origin and social status of the wearer. As with other folk costumes, traditional dirndls often come in two forms: one for everyday occasions, the other for traditional festivals and formal wear. Dirndls worn in everyday use are rural domestic clothing, made from grey or coloured linen, sometimes with leather bodice and trim. Dirndls used on formal occasions are usually made with materials, designs, colours and embroidery specific to the region.
In more traditional designs, the blouse worn on formal occasions features an elaborate collar made from lace or tassels, which draped over the shoulders and breast. This has the function of concealing décolletage, in line with traditional Catholic ideas of modesty.
Accessories may include a long apron tied round the waist, a waistcoat or a woollen shawl. In ceremonies of the Catholic church, women often wear a hat or bonnet with the dirndl. In many regions, especially the Ausseerland in the Austrian Salzkammergut, vibrantly coloured, hand-printed silk scarfs and silk aprons are worn. Women often wear necklaces, earrings and brooches made of silver, the antlers of deer or even animals' teeth. In spring, the front of the bodice is sometimes decorated with fresh flowers.
For colder weather there are heavy dirndl coats in the same cut as the dresses, with a high neck and front buttons, thick mittens and wool hats.
A dirndl skirt is a full, wide skirt, gathered into folds at the waist.
Dresses that are loosely based on the dirndl are known as Landhausmode (literally "country house style") dresses.
In recent decades, fashion designers have been creating their own interpretations of the dirndl. While appearing to be simple and plain, a properly made modern dirndl may be quite expensive as it is tailored, and sometimes cut from costly hand-printed or silk fabrics.
The dirndl has passed through different periods in its history. These include (1) its origins as rural clothing, (2) development as a recognized folk costume, (3) evolution as a fashion style, (4) appropriation by the Nazis, (5) fall in popularity following the Second World War and then revived popularity from the 1990s. Each of these periods has left an impression on the design and perception of the dirndl.
The dirndl originated as a dress worn in rural areas, a more hardy form of the costume worn today. Rural costumes originated in the countryside; they showed that the wearer belonged to a particular social class, occupation, religious persuasion or ethnic group. In the country, the folk costumes developed differently from one another. They were influenced by urban fashions, costumes in neighbouring regions, available materials, as well as fashions in the royal courts and in the military.
Dresses similar to the dirndl, featuring skirts with bodices, aprons and blouses were commonplace in Europe from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Similar elements are present in other German folk costumes, for instance the tracht designs found in the Black Forest; they also occur in folk costumes in other parts of Europe, such as the Norwegian Bunad and the Gorenjska noša costume of Slovenia. Alpine traditional costume spread to regions in Bavaria and Austria outside the mountains through migration in search of work. As well as Alpine peasant attire, it had become female Austrian servants' work clothes by that time. The design was influenced by the women´s fashions of the royal court in the 18th century, which featured a tight bodice, lower neckline and wide skirt. In time, these features made their way into fashions of urban and rural classes.
Like other rural costumes, a distinction developed between the everyday version of the dirndl and the version used for festive occasions. The festive version of each costume tradition was considered the ideal form. Festive occasions for wearing the dirndl were typically markets and or festivals of the Catholic church, such as pilgrim processions. Over time, the festive versions of the dirndl developed elaborate decoration around the collar and breast, including embroidery, floral decorations and elaborate lace collars draped over the shoulders and breast. Elaborate headwear developed to indicate distinctions in social status.
Development of the dirndl as folk costumeEdit
During the 19th century, the dirndl (like its masculine counterpart Lederhosen) was recognised by the governments of Bavaria and Austria as approved folk costume. In Bavaria and Austria, enthusiasm for the different costumes of the rural population developed at the royal courts in the early 19th century. The interest in traditional costume (Trachtenbewegung) was part of a wider cultural response to the humiliations suffered through the repeated foreign invasions during the Napoleonic Wars. The German-speaking peoples investigated their cultural heritage as a reaffirmation of their identity. The result was a flowering of research and artistic work centred around Germanic cultural traditions, expressed in painting, literature, architecture, music and promotion of German language and folklore.
The first extensive description of traditional tracht in the different regions was given by the Bavarian official Joseph von Hazzi (1768–1845). A comprehensive description of Bavarian national costumes was published in 1830 by the archivist Felix Joseph von Lipowsky. A parade of traditional costumes took place in 1835 at Oktoberfest, to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and Queen Therese. Under his successor Maximilian II, traditional costumes were officially recognised as clothing suitable for wearing at the royal court. The king himself included officials wearing tracht in his court ceremonies and wrote in 1849 that he considered the wearing of folk costume of "great importance" for national sentiment. The wearing of dirndls and lederhosen was thus given royal favour.
In 1859, the first association to promote folk costume was founded in Miesbach in Bavaria. In the following years, similar tracht associations (Trachtenvereine) were founded throughout Germany and Austria. The tracht associations promoted research and wearing of the traditional clothing in each region. This helped preserve the traditions against the ravages of modernism; in contrast, the wearing of the traditional tracht declined in regions where the tracht associations were not active. The first umbrella organisation for the tracht associations was founded in 1890.
By the later 19th century, it had become popular for members of the royal courts in Austria and Bavaria to wear folk costume. Among the most prominent royal patrons of folk costume were the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph and Luitpold, Prince Regent of Bavaria, the successor of Ludwig II; both often hunted wearing lederhosen. The wife of Emperor Franz Joseph, Elisabeth of Bavaria, liked to wear a rustic dress called a 'Sissi', based on the peasant dirndl.
Evolution as a fashion styleEdit
The wearing of folk costume by royalty encouraged its adoption by other members of the upper and wealthier middle classes. From around the 1880s or 1890s, the dirndl became established as a typical "country" dress amongst the wealthy patrons of the summer holiday resorts of Austria and Bavaria. An important influence was German Romantic literature, which contrasted the allegedly natural, unspoilt and unpolluted people of the countryside with the artificiality and depravity of urban society. The adoption of the dirndl as a fashion resulted in the use of a greater variety of materials and colours, and a closer fit to emphasise the female body shape.  Both upper and middle classes wore clothing based on folk costume when hunting and in other social events. As a result, the traditional costume worn by country people was also raised in perceived status.
Key in this development were the Jewish brothers Julius (1874-1965) and Moritz Wallach (1879-1963), originally from Bielefeld in north-western Germany. After they moved to Munich with their family in 1890, they became interested in and began promoting Alpine tracht. They employed seamstresses, who industriously produced the first elegant dirndls from colourful printed fabrics, predominantly silk. The dresses were exhibited by models from the firm in the Alpine resorts. A major breakthrough for the Wallach brothers came in 1910, when they organized and paid for the traditional costume parade for the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Oktoberfest. The Wallach brothers also became suppliers to the European aristocracy with their unique hand-sewn creations; they designed a dirndl for Princess Marie-Auguste of Anhalt, which created a sensation at a ball in Paris.
In the hard economic times following the First World War, the dirndl became a big-seller; as a simple summer dress, it was an affordable alternative to the often expensive and elaborately worked historic women's costumes. Between 1920 and 1926, the Wallach brothers operated the Münchner Volkskunsthaus ("Munich house of folk art"). In 1926, Moritz Wallach founded the Wallach-haus (Wallach House), a specialist supplier of tracht and folk art, which became well-known outside the borders of Germany.
In Austria, the wearing of folk costume was promoted by Viktor von Geramb (1884-1958), professor of folk culture at the universities of Graz and Vienna. He saw folk costume as a means of rejuvenating Austrian identity after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy during the First World War. Von Geramb was critical of the tracht associations for insisting rigidly on the historic designs, which were treated as a uniform of the association. He argued that, for folk costume to be a living tradition, it needed to express the individuality of the wearer; thus designs and materials needed to be adapted to contemporary culture and technology. Accordingly, he worked with commercial firms on finding material and designs that would allow the production of folk costume in large quantities. Consequently, Alpine tracht gained in general popularity and even spread to eastern Austria, where it had not been part of the traditional clothing culture. The dirndl was increasingly perceived as the Austrian national dress.
In 1930, the Wallach brothers supplied the stage costumes for the operetta The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl). The romantic comedy presented an idyllic picture of the Austrian Alps and had long runs in cities like Berlin, Vienna, Munich, London, Paris and New York. Inspired by the lively innkeeper heroine, the dirndl became an international fashion phenomenon, always with an apron and usually with deep décolletage. This widespread adoption was helped along by a general 1930s trend to a silhouette which matched the folk costume: full skirts, higher hemlines, broader shoulders and tailored waists.
The dirndl was also promoted through the Trapp Family Singers, who wore dirndls during their performance at the Salzburg Festival (1936), and later on their worldwide tours. In addition, the film Heidi, with Shirley Temple in the lead role, became a hit in 1937. By that year, the dirndl was considered a 'must' in the wardrobe of every fashionable American woman.
Appropriation by the Nazis (1933 - 1945)Edit
German traditional costume, including the dirndl, was instrumentalized by the Nazis as a symbol of pan-German identity in the countries under Nazi rule (Germany from 1933, Austria from 1938). The dirndl was used to promote the Nazi ideal of the German woman as hard-working and fertile. For example, a propaganda photo released by the (Nazi Party) Office of Racial Politics (right) showed a young blonde girl wearing a dirndl, watching over small boys playing. A similar theme appeared in a photograph by Erich Bieber on the front cover of the May 1937 issue of the magazine Volk und Welt ('People and world'), approved by the Nazi government. The image depicts an attractive young woman clad in a simple dirndl, gazing down maternally at her blond son.
Jews were forbidden to use "folk culture", even though they had played such a prominent role in documenting and promoting it. In 1938, the Wallach brothers were forced to sell their business under cost. Moritz Wallach emigrated to the United States, followed shortly after by Julius. Their brother Max, who had also been involved in the business, was interned in Dachau concentration camp and was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.
Viktor von Geramb, who had promoted the dirndl in Austria, lost his position at the University of Vienna in 1938 because of his public opposition to Nazi racial theory. He was especially criticized for his strong attachment to Christian ideas of human worth. He was restored to his position at the university only after the defeat of the Nazi régime in 1945.
The National Socialist Women's League established the office of the "Reich Commissioner for German costume" under the leadership of Gertrud Pesendorfer (1895–1982). In 1938, she published new dirndl designs by Gretel Karasek (1910-1992), which Pesendorfer described as "renewed costume". According to Pesendorfer, Karasek had made the following changes from traditional designs: (a) the dress was made more fitted, with a slimmer waist, emphasised by tighter lacing and buttons; (b) the skirt was reduced to mid length; (c) the original full-length sleeves were taken above the elbow; and (d) the collar was removed, allowing décolletage to be displayed. The overall effect accentuated the female form and especially the breasts. Pesendorfer described the new style as "de-catholicised" (entkatholisiert). She said her goal was to free the costume of "overburdening by church, industrialization and fashionable cries" and "foreign influences" and to let the "rogue sub-culture" back again. 
After the Second World War (1945 - present)Edit
The Second World War (1939-1945) began a downturn in the popularity of the dirndl. After Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, American and British consumers began rejecting all things German. In turn, new fashion influences appeared in popular culture, such as the film Gone With the Wind, which premiered less than three months after the fall of Warsaw. By 1941, the dirndl had been replaced as an American fashion craze by the wasp waist.
In Germany and Austria, the dirndl declined in popularity, especially in the cities. Its image had been tarred by association with the Nazis, like other Germanic traditions, such as beer-drinking and sausages. Nevertheless, the dirndl continued to be traditional dress in the countryside, and came to be regarded by many as rustic dress only.
There was a minor revival of interest after the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Led by Silvia Sommerlath (now Queen Silvia of Sweden), the hostesses wore sky-blue dirndls as a promotion of Bavarian identity. In the 1980s, there was a further revival of interest in the dirndl, as traditional clothing became associated with the environmental and anti-nuclear movements.
Today the dirndl is traditionally worn at public events in rural areas, such as annual markets and church anniversaries. Dirndls are also common at folk festivals (Volksfeste) in southern Germany and Alpine regions, such as Oktoberfest and the Cannstatter Volksfest. While the wearing of traditional clothing at Volksfeste was still not widespread in the 1970s, since the 1990s it has become very strong. Some commentators speak of a "dirndl Renaissance". A major contributing factor was the increasing confidence in German identity after the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Recent customs by countryEdit
In Austria, dirndls continue to be worn on public occasions, even by younger women. The dirndl is considered an important part of Alpine folk culture. Other aspects of folk culture are Lederhosen for men, traditional sports (e.g. shooting, music, crossbow), skills (e.g. embroidery) and musical traditions (e.g. singing Christmas carols and Schuhplattler dance groups). The folk culture is promoted by and protected by local folk culture associations, which are affiliated with the Bund der Österreichischen Trachten- und Heimatverbände (Federation of Austrian folk costume and homeland associations).
The Catholic church has played an important role in promoting the dirndl in Austria; traditional dress is worn for worship services, especially the major church holidays (e.g. Easter, Pentecost, Corpus Christi) and saints´ feast days. The Tyrol has a tradition of the heiligen Tracht (holy folk costume), which is not to be worn on secular occasions marked by drinking.
Folk costume also continues to be worn for most weddings and festivals. Old traditions are carefully maintained among inhabitants of Alpine areas, even though this is seldom obvious to the visitor: many people are members of cultural associations where the Alpine folk culture is cultivated. At cultural events, the traditional dirndl is the expected dress for women. Visitors can get a glimpse of the rich customs of the Alps at public Volksfeste. Even when large events feature only a little folk culture, all participants take part with gusto. Good opportunities to see local people celebrating the traditional culture occur at the many fairs, wine festivals and firefighting festivals which fill weekends in the Austrian countryside from spring to autumn. Only in the region surrounding Vienna is the traditional folk culture not a regular part of daily life.
In Austria, the dirndl is a symbol of national identity, seen in Austria as a national symbol. In tourist settings, staff in offices, restaurants, wineries and shops often wear dirndls as a work uniform; this is also the case in the non-Alpine regions in the east of Austria. Even in everyday life, many Austrian women wear dirndls as an alternative to other fashions.
Festivals at which dirndls are expected dress include festivities for raising the Maypole on the 1st May, the Narzissenfest (daffodil festival) during May in Bad Aussee, the Salzburg Festival and the Ausseer Kirtag in September. Styles are both less extravagant and show less décolletage than at Oktoberfest.
In Austria, and other parts of south central Europe, there are literally splashy events known as Dirndlspringen, in which attractive young women, are judged by how well they dive from a diving board into a lake or a swimming pool while wearing the dirndl, using it as a swimdress.
In Germany, the dirndl is traditionally worn only in the Alpine regions of Bavaria, where it is deeply integrated in the traditional culture. For instance, dirndls are traditionally worn by women attending formal ceremonies of the Catholic church. In many Bavarian villages, processions to honour St George and St Leonard are special occasions for wearing Alpine tracht. The traditional dirndl is also the normal attire of women attending events associated with Alpine folk culture. Volksfeste often feature events at which traditional dirndls from regions are worn, as illustrated in the photo on the right. In all of these activities, the dirndls normally worn are the traditional local designs, considered most suitable for formal occasions. The traditional designs are promoted by and protected by local folk culture associations affiliated with the Bayerische Trachtenverband (Bavarian folk costume association). Modern commercially designed dirndls are worn on less formal occasions.
In recent decades, Germans from other regions have shown increasing interest in dirndls. This is especially evident in changing fashions at Oktoberfest, the world´s largest Volksfest. Until the 1970s, most visitors to Oktoberfest did not wear traditional tracht; it was common to wear jeans. Since the late 1990s dirndls and Lederhosen have come to be regarded as obligatory wear at the festival. The name Wiesentracht is given to Oktoberfest dirndls, referring to the Theresienwiese, where the Oktoberfest events occur. Oktoberfest dirndls tend to be more colourful and revealing. Skirts are often above the knee, and deep décolletage is almost universal.
In the past few years, "Oktoberfest" celebrations have developed in parts of Germany remote from Bavaria, such as Münster in Westphalia. Dirndls and lederhosen are now considered an intrinsic part of such events. Further evidence of increasing acceptance of the dirndl is the increasing willingness of high-end German fashion houses to design and sell their own versions.
Cultural commentators have described this change in fashions as a sign of a healthy self-confidence in German identity, indicating that Germans are able to celebrate their past while being open to the world.
In Switzerland, the dirndl is the official outfit for certain representations, events, cultural shows and singing old folk songs often involving yodeling.
Germans, Austrian, Swiss and Scandinavian people migrated to North America in the 19th century. Germans made a strong contribution to the gene pool of Montana, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Missouri, Wisconsin, New York City and Chicago. The German American ethnic group (German: Deutschamerikaner) are their descendants in north America. Beginning in 1920 and especially after World War II, many Danube Swabians migrated to the United States, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Austria, Australia, and Argentina.
Across the United States there are dozens of German-American cultural or heritage clubs, such as the Donauschwaben heritage clubs. In these clubs, members host events and festivals to preserve and/or celebrate their heritage with the surrounding communities. During these festivals, participants often dress in traditional outfits such as dirndls and lederhosen.
Because the appeal of the dirndl is its rustic look, plastic dirndls with flashy ornaments are looked down upon. Style experts recommend staying away from cheap outfits that one can buy on the street corner; it is better to spend a little more to get an outfit. The dirndl should be tightly fitted to look right.
There is an urban legend that claims the placement of the knot on the apron is an indicator of the woman's marital status. In this story, which is not based in tradition, tying the sash on the woman's left side indicates that she is single, and a knot tied on the right means that she is married, engaged or otherwise not interested in dating.
Dirndls in popular cultureEdit
Musical mentions of dirndlsEdit
The dirndl is mentioned in the song "Turn Around", composed in 1959 by Harry Belafonte, Alan Greene and Malvina Reynolds. "Dirndls and petticoats, where have you gone?" This song was originally recorded by the Kingston Trio.
Films featuring women in dirndl costumesEdit
- Above Suspicion (1943)
- Almost Angels
- Charlie's Angels
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
- Heidi (1937 and 1968)
- Miss Congeniality
- The Monastery's Hunter (1935)
- National Lampoon's European Vacation
- The Producers
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
- The Sound of Music
- The Student Prince
- Summer in Tyrol
- The Violin Maker of Mittenwald
- Where Eagles Dare
- The White Horse Inn (1926, 1948, 1952 and 1960)
- Young Frankenstein
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Dirndl.|
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- Tostmann, Gexi: The dirndl: With instructions. Panorama, Vienna 1990. ISBN 978-3-8505-7001-5 [in English]
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