Dirndl Drama

Vierländer Tracht (Hamburg, c. 1900)

There’s trouble brewing in the world of trachtenthe traditional clothing of German speaking cultures. For hundreds of years, these garments have been a regional, hand-made, craft industry. Each region of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein has infinitely detailed and specific variations. Traditionally-made tracht is beautiful and lasts for decades (which nowadays translates into some very expensive clothing!).

Image from Tostmann Trachten, based in Upper Austria.

Image from Tostmann Trachten, based in Upper Austria.

I think I am fascinated by tracht because as an American of (very) distant (mostly) British origin, I don’t have a cultural equivalent. Wearing any culture’s traditional dress would feel like donning a costume to me, rather than participating in a tradition. Although, who knows, maybe Austria will become enough of an adopted culture that I’ll feel differently!

But that’s not the trouble that this post refers to. The issue, oddly enough, is that tracht is becoming cool again. In particular, the dirndls (women’s dresses pictured above) of Austria and Bavaria have become very fashionable in Central Europe over the last few years. So what happens when something traditional and expensive becomes trendy?

You get off-the-rack, imported “trachten,” that cost comparatively little and undercut traditional sellers among their largest growing market–teenagers and young adults. You get generic “Bavarian” tracht, which have no actual regional ties–but you get them at a fraction of the price, just in time for Oktoberfest.

New collection from European retailer "New Yorker."

New collection from European retailer New Yorker.

This phenomenon raises a lot of questions for me. It’s great that German and Austrian youth are embracing their heritage, and I would be a hypocrite if I said I wasn’t in favor of more inexpensive clothes!

But to what extent are high street or shopping mall trachten misappropriating regional cultures? What long term effect will this have on local tracht makers? Maybe not much at all. Generally, what is in fashion is out of fashion quickly enough. But when you are creating an expensive specialty item, the effect of a cheaper, more readily available alternative can be disastrous.

There are also many young up-and-coming designers creating artistic “fashion trachten” for the runways. While these designs have little to do with traditional tracht, they have created an exclusive niche market that is invigorating Germany’s fashion industry as a whole.

Designer Lola Paltinger, at her atelier in Munich.

The network of tensions here, between fashion and tradition, consumer and culture, are complicated. I am certainly not in a position to make a judgment call! But as I get closer and closer to my year in Austria, I find myself digging at these glimpses of culture that slip into American media. What does all this dirndl drama signify? What are the undercurrents here, the unspoken understandings of what makes one Austrian (or German, or Tyrolean or Bavarian, for that matter)?

Isn’t the purpose of traditional clothing in modern times to create a sense of cultural identity? Here is my ultimate questions, to which I have no answer: What is the identity being created here, and what does it mean for the people of Austria and Germany?

Further Reading:

“Party dirndl upset German traditionalists” The Guardian

“At Oktoberfest, a Controversy Brews Over Racy Designer Dirndls” The Wall Street Journal 

2 comments

  1. It’s kind of tricky, though: pretty as tracht is, it still has some national socialist/ völkisch implications for a lot of people. I don’t feel like I’m appropriating by wearing tracht, but I’m wary because it seems to go along with a particular “heimat” idea that I’m not comfortable with. On the other hand, as an immigrant, I find it pleasantly subversive to wear trachten…

    1. That does add another layer, for sure. Thanks for your thoughts!

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