Dirndl' for sale
"'Dirndl' on sale" by Cat Lovers is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Every year the phenomenon of millions parading towards Germany’s meadows to celebrate the world’s largest folk festival strikes again. Observing the masses, it seems that locals and tourists alike have little choice but to don traditional German dress if they want to experience the Oktoberfest festivities fully or, at least, to dress up in what they perceive traditional German dress to be.

Although popular belief supposes the dirndl has deep historical roots and evolved from agricultural workwear, the concept of the dirndl is pretty young. The name is derived from the Bavarian–Austrian dialect where ‘Dirn’ is a young woman working in the household or agriculture. Towards the end of the 18th century, there was a growing trend in urban bourgeoise to take a break from the rigour and etiquette of daily life and enjoy the idyllic countryside. This gave rise to the first contact points between urban and rural populations which unsurprisingly left traces in fashion. The urbanised society of the Alpine foothills, namely the Munich bourgeoisie, took a liking to the rural ‘look’ and adopted a refined version of traditional rural dress for their summer excursions to the countryside – pimped up to suit their fashion and class standards, of course. This is precisely where the dirndl was born – among wealthy city women. The dirndl was a fashionable summer dress that the urban bourgeoisie wore on their country holiday, rather than a farmer’s wife or maid servant’s work dress. This would have also been problematic, as the dresses were too delicate to be practical.

The urban bourgeois’ fondness for the rural ‘look’ was influenced by the wedding of the Bavarian Crown Prince in 1810. In the wake of the French Revolution and the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, Bavaria was experiencing unprecedented upheavals, similar to the rest of Germany. The royal family searched for a way to impart the new nation with an identity and presented the traditional dress. Consequently, a parade of 29 child couples marched past the newlyweds in which each couple stood for one of the provinces of the Bavarian Kingdom and wore their respective traditional dress. Hats off to what is probably one of the most ingenious marketing strategies in history and remains popular even today. The presented traditional dresses were based on the garments of the peasantry but pimped up – a romanticised version of worker wear.

With His Highness’ influence, the traditional dress became an expression of the fashion of a particular social class, adapted and changed according to region and throughout the century. With the rise of the Third Reich, the Nazis instrumentalised the dirndl to popularise their ideology by leaning on folk culture. Originally influenced by church traditions, the Nazis attempted to secularise the traditional dress and freshen it up in line with their ideology.

In the second half of the 20th century, the traditional dress lost some appeal and allure. However, in the 2000s, the popularity of the dirndl strongly increased again. The combination of skirt, apron, bodice-like top, and puffed sleeve blouse has long since become a piece of popular culture – a timeless fashion piece – changed and adapted thousands of times to reflect the Zeitgeist and hence remain eternally alluring. Nowadays, the majority of these dresses are industrially manufactured and satisfy the fast fashion trend. However, there is also the designer dirndl which offers a high-quality and fashionably ambitious interpretation of the traditional look. Designers such as Dolce & Gabbana and Vivienne Westwood are guided by the traditional silhouette but renew it with dramatic exaggerations, rich decorations, and sometimes surprising excursions to other cultures. Consider the dirndls made from typical African wax print fabrics, for example. Just how much fashion trends influence the dirndl could be seen last year again, in which the Oktoberfest fashion stage was a salute to the summer runaway hit movie, Barbie, with pink being the big hero of 2023 and topping the colour palette in the world of dirndls too.

In addition, unspoken codes regarding how to wear the Dirndl exist, such as how to tie the bow at the waist. Worn on the left, the bow indicates a single woman, on the right a married woman, at the back a widow, and a bow tied at the centre is supposedly reserved for virgins. However, there is no historical evidence for these codes; they are likely to have originated at the Oktoberfest in Munich than in the alpine pastures. Nevertheless, beware of the code! A mix-up can quickly lead to very awkward situations in the beer tent!

Dirndl experts understandably wrinkle their noses at the abundance of commercial dirndls which parade the ‘Wiesn’ every year. But even they know that there is no such thing as a real Dirndl and perhaps there never has been – it is much more a romantic invention that is constantly revived and reimagined by each new generation.