From rags to riches: the evolution of the Dirndl in Germany
The bodice, the blouse, the tight lace and long skirt; all are part of the familiar silhouette of the Dirndl – a traditional woman’s outfit in Germany. If you've ever been to Germany (and probably even if you haven't!) you'll have come across the Dirndl, especially during festival season.
Developed during the 19th century, based on the clothing worn by Alpine peasants, the name “Dirndl” is a diminutive of Dirne – the term used for young women at the time. Nowadays, the term Dirne is generally used to refer to a sex worker. However, the traditional women’s outfit in Germany – the Dirndl – still keeps its original name.
How to recognise a Dirndl
The Dirndl consists of four main components: a bodice, a skirt, a blouse and an apron.
Bodice (Mieder or Leiberl)
The Dirndl's bodice typically consists of a single piece of material that joins at the front. It is held together by lace, buttons, a hook and eye closure or – more recently – a zip. The material – typically cotton, velvet, linen or silk – is usually embroidered or printed, especially when worn for public events. The neckline (Ausschnitt) of a bodice is traditionally low, and can be heart shaped, V-shaped, balconette or round.
Nowadays, the skirt of a dirndl is sewn onto the bodice. However, before the 1930s it used to be separate. Skirts nowadays come in a variety of sizes (including above the knee), but the original Dirndl had a long skirt that stopped slightly above the ankle. Just like the bodice, the skirt was also made from material that was coloured, printed or embroidered.
The blouse, worn underneath the bodice, comes in a variety of different styles. Usually white and reaching to just below the bust, a typical blouse can vary from extravagant pieces with ruffles and lace to the most simple ones with straight sleeves.
Although nowadays a tad more elaborate, the apron was traditionally a single colour, although spiced up with a floral pattern for special occasions. The design of the apron varied among regions.
A brief history of the Dirndl
Skirts and pinafores with bodices, cooking aprons and blouses have been commonplace in Europe since the 16th century. The first Dirndls, developed in the eastern regions of the Swiss Alps, were a basic form of this. They were designed to be hardy outfits for the heavy work and constant movement demanded of peasants and servants.
Dirndls were therefore commonly worn as simple work clothes across the Alpine regions. It was a simple, comfortable outfit, made of soft, breathable and easily washable materials, without restrictive corsets or hoops.
The Dirndl as a fashion statement
By the 18th century, however, the Dirndl had become a fashion statement among the aristocracy, featuring a lower neckline, tighter bodice and wider skirt. At a time when the aristocracy was consciously withdrawing itself from the rigid etiquette of life at court, the traditional clothing of peasants experted a romantic pull on upper class women.
A major influence on this new and revamped Dirndl came from the Jewish Wallach brothers – Julius and Moritz Wallach – who moved to Munich in 1890. They employed seamstresses to make their vision a reality – thus creating the first elegant Dirndls made from colourful, printed and expensive fabrics (typically silk). Soon enough, they rocketed to fame and became the suppliers for much of the European aristocracy.
The Dirndl under Nazi regime
Under the regime of the National Socialist party, the popularity of the Wallach brothers came to a halt. Jews were forbidden from participating in “folk culture” despite having had such a large influence on it over the years. The Wallach brothers thus had no choice but to sell their business and emigrate to the United States.
As for the rest of Germany, the Dirndl was used by the Nazis to promote their ideal of the German woman – fertile, motherly and hardworking. Along with Lederhosen, the Dirndl was instrumentalised as a symbol of pan-German identity.
Understandably, after the end of World War II the Dirndl began to lose popularity, especially in the major German cities. The image of the Dirndl was tarnished in the eyes of many, and served as a reminder of the Nazi regime and the war. However, in the countryside and other rural areas, it continued to be worn as a traditional outfit.
Despite its fall in popularity in the aftermath of the war, the last 10 years have witnessed a resurgence of the Dirndl, especially during traditional German festivals such as Oktoberfest and Karneval. In many regions, especially in southern Germany and Austria, the Dirndl is also worn during official celebrations such weddings and festivals.
However, the Dirndls worn today also take on their own styles, patterns and materials, with shorter skirts, more comfortable shoes and modern designs and colours.
With a country as large and diverse as Germany, it is quite normal that different regions – based on local and foreign influences, culture and values – have their own unique interpretation of national traditions. The same applies to the Dirndl, and it is possible to see regional variations of this distinct outfit in different parts of the country.
A particularly interesting variation of the Dirndl can be found towards the north of Germany in the Frisian Islands. This outfit – unlike the traditional Dirndl – was not made for labour, but rather to show off the wealth and status of the wearer and her family.
de:Benutzer:Amras wi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
This outfit consists of a dark blue skirt folded 60 times, sleeves made of taffeta, rayon or velvet, a white apron, a shawl pinned with up to 70 needles, a headscarf with an ornament and a silver jewellery piece with an amulet in the centre. As you may have already guessed, this outfit takes several hours to put on, and is extremely expensive (costing up to 5.000 euros).
When should you wear a Dirndl in Germany?
Today, the Dirndl is typically not regarded as an outfit for everyday use, but rather for use on special occasions and to celebrate traditions. It is worn as a reminder of German culture and tradition.
Some perfect opportunities to show off your unique style of Dirndl are during traditional German festivals such as Oktoberfest and other beer festivals – after all, there’s nothing more German than dancing, singing and enjoying yourself with your friends, while sporting your traditional outfit and drinking some top quality German beer! Prost!