Oktoberfest - ein Fest der Landeshauptstadt München
Photo: Sebastian Lehner

The dirndl

The long history of a very special traditional costume

Nowadays, all kinds of dirndls are available. Traditional versions that can be found throughout Bavaria, mini-dirndls in neon colors, which are popular among tourists in particular, and even exclusive haute couture dirndls for which the sky is the limit when it comes to the price. Unlike today, dirndls were worn as work clothes only, and had to satisfy one main objective: practicality.

Why every woman looks good in a dirndl

The dirndl is in a class of its own. It represents a love of tradition, custom and a very special outlook on life. And every woman looks great in one. It’s no wonder that the dirndl is so popular. In the past, however, this traditional costume was not worn to be appealing on the eye, but for very different reasons.

The history of the dirndl: From work garb to festival garment

The word dirndl originates from the term ‘diernen’. That’s what the women who worked on farms in Bavaria and Austria were known as in the 19th century. The following typical work clothing was worn: Women donned a ‘leiblgwand’ over their shirt. This is what we now recognize as a dirndl dress. An apron was worn over the dress, which looked little in the way of today’s elegant versions. In by-gone days, bed linen was used to make aprons instead of velvet and satin. If you were lucky, your dirndl might even have boasted a semi-fashionable pattern. Floral and tendril patterns were naturally a feature of some dresses, but most dirndl aprons were simple and monotone. Groomed for servitude — they really were in those days. Unlike today, dirndls did not accompany their wearer to Oktoberfest or other folk festivals, but rather when cleaning, working in stalls or in fields.

Suddenly on-trend — the dirndl cuts a great figure

In the 1930s, there was a real hype around dirndls. City girls who travelled to the mountains for relaxation found they quite liked the maids’ ‘look’ — of course it required a makeover befitting of them. In Germany, the trashy operetta ‘The White Horse’ with Theo Lingen also contributed to the dirndl’s new found popularity. The same applied to the USA where ‘The White Horse’ was a box office hit on Broadway, running 223 times and adding to dirndl mania. Suddenly, traditional costume was hot and anyone who wanted to showcase the latest fashion trends was sure to be seen in a dress with traditional-style features. Summer versions of the dirndl assumed puffy sleeves, bodices and aprons while winter models had additional warm flannel in loden green and dark blue.

Every region offers its own unique take on the dirndl

The same rule still applies to this day: No two dirndls are the same. Over time, regional and local differences began to emerge, making each traditional look unique and distinctive. In Passau in lower Bavaria, a golden hat is worn with traditional costume. Although it’s relatively close to Passau, in tranquil Hinterskirchen other details take center stage. Women there not only wear blue knee-high socks, but they also wear a small crown (kranl) — the latter only applies to unmarried ladies, however. Fashionable dirndl wearers in upper Bavaria, on the other hand, usually team their dirndl with a choker. The final look is always a unique mix of tradition and personal taste.