The lederhosen and dirndl may be the most recognizable country-specific outfit in the world. Even centuries after they were first introduced to Bavarian life, these Tracht costumes continue to represent German pride. They are often worn during Oktoberfest and other festivals celebrating German culture…but mostly Oktoberfest.
However, the outfit is specific and unorthodox when compared to today’s wear. So how did these trademark outfits come about? Who woke up one day and said, “You know what would look great? Some half-pant, half-shorts things with suspenders: That would look so good.” Well, clearly no one did that, but the lederhosen and dirndl do have long histories that parallel the lifestyle, development, and antiquity of Germany. Read on to learn the exciting history of these garbs (and become the smartest person in a room of Oktoberfest tourists).
Lederhosen were never intended to be a traditional costume. Rather, they were created as work wear for peasants. For centuries, Germans had already been using leather to make clothing articles such as boots. Leather was a good high-endurance material for laborers and farmers to wear in demanding work conditions. In the 16th century, French culottes (or knee breeches) started to popularize throughout Europe. The French made their clothes from softer fabrics, as the culottes were used for leisurely and aristocratic apparel. By the 18th century, German and Austrian workers in the Alps took the culottes style for their own use. But instead of using the soft French fabrics, they went with their trusty leather. Thus, the lederhosen, which literally translates to “leather breeches”, was just culottes made out of leather!
Although the outfits were made for mountain and country-dwelling peasants, upper-class Germans eventually found the lederhosen to be sensible attire for outdoor activities such as horseback riding and hunting. Additionally, it became fashionable for noble society to emulate peasant style during the 18th century. Lederhosen worked their way up to courtly society while still being used by peasants. This resulted in lederhosen being the universal German attire.
In the 19th century, pantaloons and trousers began to take the place of culottes in European fashion. Since nobilities now had a new trend to follow, their interest in lederhosen dropped sharply. The lederhosen were then seen, again, as peasant clothing that was unfit for city dwellers (turns out Europeans have always had a little hipster in them). As for country workers, lederhosen were eventually outsourced by a different invention: jeans (which were coincidentally invented by Levi Strauss, an immigrant from Germany). Jeans not only caught on for working purposes, but younger generations recognized them as a hot American fashion trend. From all of these factors, lederhosen were weeded out of the necessary apparel for German life.
But just as lederhosen started to become irrelevant, their revival for costume purposes started. In the 1880s, Munich began founding clubs dedicated to preserving Bavarian culture. The biggest factor was Oktoberfest, which announced in 1887 that lederhosen and dirndls would be the official garb for the attendees. Today, that rule still applies.
The view of lederhosen as the quintessential Bavarian outfit originated during this revival. Much like the kilt in Scotland, lederhosen have become a cultural stamp for German history. The dirndl experienced a very similar origin, evolution, and revival in its journey to legendary status.
The dirndl’s history parallels with that of the lederhosen. The dirndl emerged in Germany during the 18th century and was also intended for working peasants. This female Tracht was designed to be a maid’s dress for house and farm workers.
Much like the lederhosen were adopted by the upper class in the 18th century, the dirndl started to make appearances in the nobles’ community. Rather than using the same affordable wools of the peasants, richer dirndls were made of silk, satin, and expensive fabrics. They eventually evolved into regular dresses, thus outsourcing the need for separate bodice, blouse, skirt and apron.
As the dirndl started dying out, they were reinstated as costume items for the same cultural events that saved the lederhosen. This credit is mostly due to Oktoberfest.
The lederhosen and dirndl histories start to drift apart through their current-day costume versions. Today, the lederhosen are very authentic and representative of the classic outfit. The dirndl, on the other hand, has been revived more fashionably. The original dirndl was made of very poor, rag-like materials. Today’s are clean, bright, and often feature shorter skirts.
Additionally, the culture of the apron knot-tying is a pretty modern emphasis (if the dirndl’s knot is tied to the right, the woman is taken. If it’s on the left, she’s single). This rule was a loose code centuries ago, as most maids were not wearing these outfits to impress anyone while they did yard work. However, this code is taken more seriously now than it ever has been historically.
So there you have it. Now you know the origin of Bavarian Trachts. Even though these outfits are donned in the Munich metropolis, their homage is owed to the common folk of the Alpines and German countryside. When you’re having a drink with some lederhosen-clad gents at Oktoberfest, make sure you Cheers those peasants.