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The Oktoberfest Tracht Phenomenon

How dirndls and lederhosen conquer the Oktoberfest

Munich, 09/22/2008

The beer's tapped and suddenly it seems the whole city is intoxicated: dirndls and lederhosen are becoming the ever more popular choice of outfit for going to the Oktoberfest – and not only among the born-and-bred Munich inhabitants. Traditional garb is more popular than ever, especially among young visitors. But why are dirndls, lederhosen and other fancy dress outfits so highly in demand now, at the beginning of the 21st Century? European ethnologist Simone Egger studies the "Oktoberfest Tracht Phenomenon" – folks dressing up in "traditional" costume for the Oktoberfest alone – and sees in it a strong desire for a sense of identity within the urban society. "I was surprised how forcefully the importance of affiliation comes across here," says the cultural scientist. "Oktoberfest Tracht in itself has not been around for very long at all. But values such as homeland and tradition become that much more important at times when uncertainty and flexibility increase worldwide."

Extraordinary occasions demand extraordinary attire – and that applies no less to the Oktoberfest. Simone Egger of the Institute for European Ethnology at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) München classifies the clothing of Oktoberfest-goers into three main groups: one category is everyday and casual clothes – although usually with a certain touch added. "Often, combinations with checkered shirts or blouses catch the eye," says Egger. "But you also see a lot of handkerchiefs tied around the neck, or other accessories of an Alpine nature. Another major unity are the beer hat, T-shirt and group outfit wearers." And last, but not least, we see increasing numbers of people wearing tracht – traditional costumes, or at least what passes as traditional costumes. Mostly these are dirndls and lederhosen, a combination that represents a broad conception of traditional clothing. Much more seldomly worn at the Oktoberfest are tracht pieces modeled on historical pictures. Except on the first Sunday of the fest during the "Trachten- und Schützenzug", a parade through Munich, lots of people in traditional clothes are visiting the city.

Of course, the ladies serving in the beer halls are all appropriately attired as a rule – and so probably come closest to the historical meaning of the "dirndl's garment". After all, the "dirndl" was originally no more than the undergarment of a maidservant – of a "dirndl". The actual dirndl dress then blossomed from a work smock into a summertime dress worn by the upper class ladies towards the end of the 19th century. "The dirndl as such originally represented an urban view of the country," reports Egger. "Lederhosen, by contrast, were actually borrowed from the farmers and ennobled by the Bavarian kings. Today, dirndls and lederhosen are an 'Oktoberfest phenomenon', combined into an urban festive garb. You can call it a prime example of ‘invention of tradition’." The cut is the same for all lederhosen, and there is also very little variation in dirndls: the dress is close-fitting and sleeveless at the top and has a wide skirt at the bottom, and is worn together with an apron and short-sleeved blouse. The current fashion is for short lederhosen and low-cut dirndls.

Nowadays, traditional costumes are available in all conceivable colors, shapes and materials. "Most of all, it comes down to the subtle differences," states Egger. "Low-priced models basically give every visitor a chance to be a part, and at the same time, limits are drawn on quality, material or skirt length. But an expensive dirndl is no more 'authentic' than a cheap cotton dress. As a cultural scientist, I'm naturally very glad to see the richness in variety." And truly, there seems to be no limit – and especially no historical limit – to the imagination: the current fashion for some years now ranges from shoulderless "Carmen" variants on the dirndl blouse to lederhosen for women. The phenomenon is faintly reminiscent of the – apparently – new-found national consciousness literally worn by the youth during the 2006 Soccer World Championship. "The enthusiasm at that event is also linked to identity issues," confirms Egger. "But fundamentally, it followed different patterns. Aside from a changing association with past and history, the weather, the team and a number of other factors played a part in that particular summer's tale."

And there is another difference: the national hype about the World Championships was over relatively quickly, while the Oktoberfest tracht phenomenon is still escalating. Egger's study showed, for example, that visitors to the Oktoberfest are looking for the connection to space and time. Even, or perhaps especially, a mobile society wants to demonstrate affiliation. In the times of global networking, local and regional things become especially important; and Munich is a successful city with a positive image at present. "With the Oktoberfest, this metropolis on the Isar also has a unique event that catches worldwide attention," says Egger. "Now, clad in dirndls and lederhosen, everyone has the chance to be a part of the fest and the image. Oktoberfest tracht is tied to the Munich habitus, and hints at a late-modernist search for identity. The notion of 'homeland' plays a major role here, but 'tradition' and 'authenticity' are issues that are also repeatedly encountered."

It follows that the increasing popularity of dirndls and lederhosen at the Oktoberfest is evidence of the desire for constancy and affiliation – even though Oktoberfest tracht itself has not been around for very long. It was only at the end of the 1960s that a Munich clothing store advertised a 'flattering dirndl', and in 1972, the hostesses at the Olympics wore pale blue dirndls, which instantly made the corset-and-skirt dress tremendously popular. Since then, the phenomenon has come back in waves. The present fad for Oktoberfest tracht started in about 2000. But the choice to wear traditional clothing appears to be more than just a fashion trend, and hints of deeper moods among the populace. And what does the Munich ethnologist personally think of Oktoberfest tracht? "I love going to the Oktoberfest," says Egger. "But rarely in a dirndl. I'm so deeply absorbed in the subject that I prefer to keep some distance."


“Phänomen Wiesntracht. Identitätspraxen einer urbanen Gesellschaft – Dirndl und Lederhosen, München und das Oktoberfest“
Simone Egger, (Münchner Ethnographische Schriften, 2)
Published by Institut für Volkskunde/Europäische Ethnologie der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Herbert Utz Verlag, Munich, 2008

Simone Egger, M.A.
Institute of European Ethnology at LMU Munich
Ludwigstr. 25/0
80539 Munich
Tel.: ++49 (0) 89 / 2180 – 2169
Fax: ++49 (0) 89 / 2180 – 3507



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