While the first models of both the Dirndl and its male equivalent, the Lederhosen, became popular in beginning of the 19th century, the Dirndl, was modified over time. Because of these significant changes, it is worth to take a look back in history in order to understand the social change that shaped the garment, use and occasion, as well as the client who is wears a Dirndl today.
The Old High German word Dirndl is a trivialised version of the word Dirne, which is an expression for a young, eligible woman; not for a prostitute as often thought. In Austria and Bavaria, a Dirne also referred to a maid working in agriculture. Consequently, the Dirndl became a specific costume worn by young, female servants or maids.
Made out of cotton and linen without any embellishment or accessories, the garment was durable, surviving the exertions of outdoor work. Each part of the garment had a designated function, whether it was to stabilize the torso (upper part, traditionally laced) or to be used to carry the harvest (apron). While the skirt was wide enough to be able to move freely, it was also long enough not to expose too much skin. Later in its development, the simple appearance became more versatile in colour and shape. And this happened for reason: a specific combination of colours, patterns or adornments indicated not only the affiliation to a certain region but also demonstrated information about the social status, wealth and the nobility of the woman. For example; An apron tied on the left means single, while right signifies a married woman, and the more embellished a Dirndl was, the higher the social status of its wearer. This created a uniform within a social structure that upheld traditional values. However, the way the Dirndl is worn today can neither be described as traditional nor does it serve to reveal the any social affiliation of its wearer.
a marketing move
A garment can only be classified as garb if it remains unaltered in its original form. The moment it is modified, it becomes fashion. The way a Dirndl is worn today, by definition, is fashion, especially the dresses worn by female visitors of Oktoberfest. This use of dress has little to do with tradition, proven by the fact that it was never a tradition to wear a Dirndl at a beer feast in the first place. For citizens two centuries ago, it was not only uncommon to wear this in public, but the costume itself was considered something a style-conscious woman would never want to be seen wearing in public. In 1972 when Munich hosted the Summer Olympic Games, the city made a bold marketing move to show Munich as a metropolis with a big heart; an image best shown by the Dirndl, worn at the Oktoberfest. It was also during this event that Queen Silvia of Sweden met her husband-to-be Carl XVI. Gustaf of Sweden when she was working as an educational hostess, dressed in none-other than a Dirndl.
The haphazard mix of colours, fabrics, patterns and incredibly short hemlines that is the image of most female Oktoberfest participants today ridicules even the attitude of forty years ago. As the garment had primarily a practical purpose, the Dirndl is now an appliance of play, to expose, to offer ‘in-depth’ looks of a well-draped décolleté while everyone drinks litres of beer. Prost!
The aforementioned real garb has nothing to do with this kind of folly. It was bound to fixed rules of appearance, of production methods and fabrics used. It was handmade with great workmanship passed on from generation to generation. Whilst it’s unreasonable to expect women to wear the tight lacing of Dirndls on a daily basis, it would be nice if the current use at least acknowledged something of its past. And anyway, true fashion is never comfortable.
Title illustration by Max Anish Gowriah