Heidi Hits The Big City
Once a symbol of national pride, Austrian traditional costumes have become modern fashion items with a global appeal
Dirndl flared around the woman’s hips, as the décolleté left her bosom mercilessly exposed; her rotund companion was pressed into taut Lederhosen, his moss green jacket studded with antler buttons.
Just in from some distant province or (as it seemed to me) from a distant past? Or were they setting off for the "Jägerball" (Hunters’ Ball) a fixture in the ball calendar of Vienna’s comfortable classes, held each January at the Hofburg?
Outside the German-speaking world, Lederhosen (short or knee-length leather trousers) and Dirndl (full-skirted dresses with a tight bodice and a low-neck white peasant blouse) are the best-known elements of traditional Austrian dress, generically known as Tracht, or in the plural Trachten. It’s a regional costume also found in Bavaria, parts of Switzerland, and South Tyrol, Italy’s northernmost province. But in an international capital, in the 21st century?
A heart of leather
In fact, folk costumes are alive and well in Austria, and not just the preserve of museums or revivalist folk societies as in other countries.
A visit to Loden-Plankl on Michaelerplatz in the 1st District, Vienna’s longest-running Trachten supplier in business since 1830, showed me why. "Of course Tracht is not as popular now as 40 years ago," the store manager explained reservedly, her hair tied up in a tight bun. "But in the country it’s still worn a lot in summer… especially for visits to the Heurigen," where vintners decant the young wine of the season. People like to wear these clothes because "they are typically Austrian," and they identify with this.
Austria boasts a variety of styles, and patterns and fabrics are attached to a particular locale: a red, black and blue palette, for instance, marks Tyrolean garments. Yet it is this "true" national identity that accounts for the garment’s troubling history, and continues to polarise its reception today.
In the mid-1930s, Trachten were mobilised by the Austro-fascist government under Kurt Schuschnigg as a symbol of Austrian patriotism against the encroachment by Nazi Germany, explains historian Hans Haas. In Salzburg, the Tracht was a compulsory uniform for its public officials. And for the Baron von Trapp, in the 1965 film The Sound of Music, stands iconically for this interwar period, his unyielding loden suit matching his resolve to remain a free (if fascist) Austrian.
Yet once inscribed with connotations of nationalism, the costume was easily enlisted "in the service of pan-Germanism," as the Austrian Mountain- and Folk-Clothing Courier put it in 1937. A law enacted in April 1938 – a mere month after Austria’s Anschluss to Nazi Germany – prohibited Jewish Austrians from wearing Trachten, while the German administrator of Salzburg, Gustav Adolf Scheel, donned the local garment to show that he was now a "true" Salzburger.
The invention of tradition
Yet just as Trachten were held up as a symbol of the local, the timeless, and the authentic, this charade of costumes aptly illustrates how fabricated such claims have always been. It’s a classic case of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm calls "the invention of tradition": Trachten have repeatedly been re-designed and re-interpreted by segments of society to suit their needs.
Originally, nothing more than peasant clothing, Dirndl were appropriated by court-ladies in the high-Romanticism of the 19th century, adapted for their milieu, of course. Similarly, in 21st century Vienna, the annual "Jägerball" is a sell-out event with city-dwellers of all ages who have little or nothing to do with hunting, dressing up in Trachten to assert their Austrian, bourgeois identity. It is also common in Austrian cities to see Tracht combined with modern clothing – a Janker, the jacket with that distinctive short collar, matched with a pair of jeans.
Today, a new wave of re-interpretation is underway, with some ground-breaking and modern, eclectic designs.
In his recent documentary, Stoff der Heimat (The Fabric of Home), Othmar Schmiderer showcases Lederhosen hot pants with high heels, black Dirndl adorned with skull & bones for heavy-metal fans, Dirndl stylised as kimonos, or orientalised to include a headscarf for young Muslimas. These creations express the fabricated identities that have in fact always underpinned Trachten, updating them to a diverse, globally mobile, urban public – perhaps an audacious attempt to wrest the costumes from the conservatives, who claim it as their exclusive heritage. "It’s an uphill struggle," one lady shopkeeper conceded in Schmiderer’s documentary, unable to get her progressive, "green" friends to don her garments.
Gabriela Urabl recently opened a shop for her label Dirndlherz in Vienna’s trendy 7th District. Her designs display all the multi-cultural playfulness characteristic of post-modernism.
One of them, entitled "African queen", is a Dirndl skirt made of West-African fabric with an organic, circular pattern in mustard and sepia tones, overlaid with a bright, silky-yellow apron, and worn with a fun, black, sleeveless top. It’s light and fresh, a cross between American Apparel and Disney’s Snow White with a Senegalese touch. And her customers? Internationals who don’t even pretend to be Austrian.
The impulse for Dirndl re-design has come from Munich, with Lola Paltinger’s Happy Heidi dresses, and perhaps a tiger-print Dirndl on the upmarket Viktualienmarkt in the city’s centre.
In Vienna, it has been left to Almdudler, the Austrian soft drink manufacturer with a Trachten-clad couple as its mascot, to spotlight the young Trachten scene: the "Almdudler Trachtenpärchenball", the first ball of the season held in September at Vienna’s city hall, has given young people a venue to flaunt their neo-Dirndl wear while dancing to the beats of international DJs.
The globalisation of Trachten
As Trachten designs have become internationalised, so has their reception: large fashion labels such as Burberry and Miu Miu have presented Dirndl skirts on the catwalks of London and Paris, while the queen of British fashion, Vivienne Westwood, was anointed Ambassador of Traditional Costume in 2010. Meanwhile, on the flea markets of Amsterdam and London, vintage Tracht is being snapped up by hipsters and combined with "very now" elements – a nostalgia for the connection with nature cut loose from a specific place. "Many don’t know their roots anymore," Urabl speculated. "And the young are more interested in the present than in the past."
So they pick out Trachten elements to suit changing fashions and individual whim. No longer a symbol of collective identity, these elements express personal individuality, showing that a dash of humour and a modern touch can turn an inward-looking badge of identity into a beautiful garment with universal appeal. ÷
Loden-Plankl, 1., Michaelerplatz 6,
Dirndlherz, 1., Lerchenfelder Str. 55,
Landhaus & Mode am Kai, 1.,
Humana second hand Trachten,
4., Wiednerhaupstr. 23–25