Why the Dirndl is So Much More than a Dress for Oktoberfest

White women in red and black dirndl standing in a pumpkin field
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It is September, and that means Oktoberfest season is upon us. The fair city of Portland (where I live) boasts over eight Oktoberfest celebrations, and many more take place all over Oregon and the United States. Part and parcel with this folksy festival  are Lederhosn and Dirndl, the stereotypical costumes closely associated with German identity. Think puffy-sleeved, aproned dresses worn by blonde, busty women carrying huge frothy biersteins, like the “St. Pauli Girl” on the iconic beer label. 

Interestingly, I have never attended any Oktoberfest, in Germany or elsewhere. Like many Germans living in the United States, I keep explaining to people that Oktoberfest is a Bavarian tradition, and that while people all over Germany sometimes wear what we call “Trachten” (a folk or ethnic garment), Lederhosn and Dirndls are a Bavarian and Austrian Tradition. As a proud Swabian, it would feel wrong to wear one. 

But in the United States, Dirndls are very often worn indiscriminately by people of German descent. They are also popular among Oktoberfest attendees and  Halloween enthusiasts alike. 

So what’s the deal with these dresses? How did they become associated with German national identity, when in fact, they originally were worn in only small parts of Germany? And what does wearing this garment tell us about ethnic identity, race, and tradition in the United States? The answer, just as the history of the dress, is complex, contradictory and in constant flux.

Myth and History

black and white photo of several women in Dirndls
Bavarian musicians, ca 1902

Late 18th and 19th century Europe was obsessed with nationalism, and peasants and farm life were especially idolized — retour a la nature. The countryside and its inhabitants were glorified as genuine and unburdened with modern, increasingly urbanized and industrialized life. Most Trachten were invented during this time, and the Dirndl is no exception. It did not start out as a traditional dress worn by peasants; it was actually adopted as such after it became fashionable in the cities. 

The basic Dirndl consists of a dress, with tight bodice, (originally) long sleeves, and a full, calf or floor-length skirt. The dress is then adorned with a shawl (sometimes a jacket), and an apron. The name Dirndl refers to its wearer — in Bavarian (and other German) dialects “dirndl” simply meant “young woman” (in high German the word changed meaning, “Dirne” in high German means “prostitute”). Thus, in its beginning, the Dirndl was a product of bourgeois projection, which turned into tradition within a few generations. And as many traditions, it became emotionally charged as well — the Dirndl, and Trachten in general became expressions of heritage and identity, or Heimat in German. Generally translated as “homeland,” Heimat also carries connotations of belonging, nature, being part of the land.  

After WWI, Dirndls became increasingly popular all over central Europe — they were (and still are) cheap and easy to produce, but could also be made haute couture using expensive textiles and elaborately stitched patterns, while still giving the impression of a simple dress. During the wild days of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), the calm, simple life in the mountains became a site of projection again. Mountain Films, a genre popularized by Arnold Fanck, Luis Trenker and Leni Riefenstahl, and musicals such as “Im weißen Rössl” (The White Horse Inn) by Erik Charell revived the golden Age of Alpinism by bringing the beauty of the Alps, and their Trachten-wearing inhabitants to cinemas all over Germany. 

Aryanizing the Dirndl

Black and white photo of Marlene Dietrich in Bavarian style costume and a girl in dirndl
Marlene Dietrich and her daughter Maria (left) in 1935 (via Pinterest)

National Socialists weaponized the concept of Heimat through the image of the (Southern) German Farm woman. In this construction, she represented the embodiment of Aryan Maidenhood: hard-working, child-bearing and of course, Dirndl-wearing. The Dirndl became a symbol of a pure, mythical German past, an “invented past” as Eric Hobsbawm would call it. Trachten enthusiast, Gertrud Pesendorfer, took it upon herself to “streamline” the design, and fit it to the image of the Aryan woman. The skirt was shortened, the bodice tightened, the arms lost their sleeves, and the cleavage became prominent — all this, Pesenhofer declared, to shed the influence of industrialization and the Catholic Church. At this point, Jews and other Non-Aryans were prohibited from wearing any Trachten, no matter for how many generations they had lived in Germany.

The Dirndl morphed from a traditional peasant dress into a uniform of ideology, from retour a la nature to blood and soil. Yet even still, for tall, blonde, blue-eyed Marlene Dietrich, wearing a Dirndl was also an act of resistance. Branded a traitor after having left Germany in 1930, she wore Dirndls in the US, and popularized, and perhaps, re-appropriated the dress.

Complicating the Past

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After WWII, Trachten in general were not popular in Germany. Any hint of nationalism or tradition was rejected by a people desperate to look ahead, and not back, to the rather inglorious past. The U.S. is a different matter. During the German immigration wave (1820- WWI) a lot of different German Trachten came to America, and were proudly worn on holidays, as a celebration of heritage, something that Jewish-German immigrant and sociologist Herbert Gans would call “symbolic” (or optional) ethnicity: that is, a sense of pride, nostalgic allegiance, and love for traditions, without having to incorporate them into daily lives. This “symbolic ethnicity” became re-popularized by GI’s who, after having been stationed in Bavaria (a large part of the US- occupation zone was Bavaria) brought back Dirndls, sometimes with associations of “Fräuleinwunder.” Over time in the US, the term “Dirndl” became a pars pro toto for all traditional German wear, just as Oktoberfest became a symbol for German folk celebrations. 

The history of the Dirndl then is complicated: it’s one of projection, power, and abuse, but also pride, emotion and Heimat. But even the positive ethnic meanings are complicated by questions of race and power. To German-Americans, the Dirndl became a symbol of heritage, representing those who came before you, the immigrants in search of a better life, who overcame hardship to live their American dream. This focus on personal achievement of ancestors is emblematic of “symbolic identity.” Within two or three generations, most European immigrants had “integrated” enough into US society that they became part of the fabric of white supremacy that structures our society. As sociologist Mary Waters explains: “For later generation White ethnics, ethnicity is not something that influences their lives unless they want it to.” In short, the Dirndl dress may signify heritage, but as white Americans, Americans with German heritage are also able to opt out of showcasing their heritage, a privilege that people of color do not have. 

Moreover, to German-Americans of the third or fourth generation, the ugly bits of 20th century German history are also something from which they can conveniently opt out. This past is, after all, something in which neither they nor their ancestors were involved, so they could separate the events from their identity. If garments are reproducing the very same power structures they signify, as poststructural theorist and eternal fashion victim Michel Foucault suggests, then wearing Dirndls as part of an optional, or symbolic identity, incidentally (or not so incidentally) also upholds a racial hierarchy in which people of white, European ancestry are at the top. And yet, these power structures always harbor the possibility of resistance, such as Marlene Dietrich’s attempts, or Erika Neumayer, a U.S.-based Dirndl designer whose ancestors belong to the Donauschwaben, an ethnic German minority that has been discriminated against for most of their history. To her, wearing a Dirndl is a vocation and a testament of her people’s survival. 

Quo vadis, Dirndl?

 Elsbeth Wallnöfer, philosopher and ethnologist from the Tyrol wants to “free the Dirndl”. She makes the case that the Dirndl was appropriated first by the Nazis, and in many ways still is appropriated by right-wing forces, who use it to celebrate their form of tradition and identity: In Bavaria, for example, women in conservative parties would (and still do) demonstratively wear dirndls on party events and in public in general. Wallnöfer’s goal however, is to celebrate heritage, tradition and Heimat in an unsentimental way:  by educating people about the history of the dress, and making it a dress of inclusion- everyone who wants to wear one, should wear one.  And it looks like her call may have been heeded.  

In Germany and Austria, the Dirndl has made a fashion comeback. Over seventy years after WWII, designers and customers are eager to take back the dirndl, show their local identity, but do it in their own way, resisting notions of conservatism and Nazi associations, by creatively undermining and reinventing dress using different materials, and opening up the dress for everyone to wear. Dirndls and Ledershosn are not gendered anymore; Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst regularly wears dirndl, and several designers are fashioning Lederhosn for women. The dresses, formerly rather uniform-looking and fairly expensive, now come in different varieties, different textiles, and can range from 50 Euro to several thousand Euros (Karl Lagerfeld’s 2013 “Punk Dirndl”, a creation of leather, black lace and tartan patterns sold for 2900 Euro).

Every year, Munich-based Trachtenfashion giant Angermaier collaborates with chosen designers to come up with a novelty Dirndl, such as the “One-Million Dollar Dirndl”. Jumping on the trend, entire Pinterest Boards are dedicated to this year’s Dirndl fashion, and the German edition of In-Style also weighs in on Oktoberfest outfits. Dirndl designers, such as NohNee for example, the designers of the “Dirndl Africaine”, a dirndl made of traditional Cameroonian textiles, reflect not only the changing demographics of Germany, but also signal: Heimat belongs to everyone, and virtually, every body.  

In a time of brazen presence of right wing forces, the dirndl is again caught in a tug-of-war, between those who wear it to signify their exclusionary vision of tradition and Heimat, and those taking a stand against it. So, I just might buy one after all.

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