Tracht or Austrian Traditional Costumes:
The Dirndlkleidl or Dirndl Dress

A traditional Dirndl dress is offered for sale in St. Gilgen in the Salzkammergut

The "Dirndlkleid" or "Dirndl" is a kind of traditional dress commonly used in Austria, Bavaria and other parts of the Eastern Alps. The name is derived from a term for "young girl" that is anachronistic everywhere but in Austria and Bavaria - where girls are still called "Dirndln". So the "Dirndlkleidl" or "Dirndlgwandl" was the dress that young girls would wear.

The question of what an authentic Dirndl is like is a rather tricky one. Traditionally, "Tracht" or traditional costumes had strong regional characteristics. The dresses that women wore were either functional or meant to express her origin or social background. This was the case until the 19th century, when regional or folk costumes became fashionable among aristocrats. Spending the summers on the countryside for a "Sommerfrische" vacation, mingling with the local farmers and picking up features from their folk culture became an increasingly big deal. The Salzkammergut and the area around Salzburg as well as Tyrol were particularly popular.

At this time, the "ancestor" of the Dirndl was the plain dress of a working class girl: Maids, nannies and alike. These dresses supported feminine shapes, but at the same time, they were comfortable and functional. In the 1870ies, Sommerfrische visitors increasingly dressed in Dirndln.

19th Century: Dirndl Dress goes Aristocratic

There is a famous photograph of Sigmund Freud with his daughter Anna in traditional clothing, Sigi in his Lederhosen and Anna in a Dirndl dress. Don′t misunderstand that - it was neither common Austrian wear nor a fancy dress thing, it was somewhere in between. Viennese aristocrats would not be dressed like that in Vienna, but on vacation, it was quite popular.

Following this period, the material, colour schemes, patterns and other features of the Dirndl were picked up by fashion designers. Mixed with the regional, traditional holiday Tracht, the "Trachtenmode" developed after 1900 as a folkloristic fashion style. In the 1920ies and 1930ies, the designs were increasingly formalised. The aristocratic gatherings at the Salzburg Festival each summer helped a great deal to promote Tracht and especially the Dirndl dress.

Design houses were established, most of which are still the most important ones. The centres of Trachten design were Tyrol, the Salzkammergut and Salzburg. Today, most of the high-end dirndl dressmakers and designers are located in Salzburg and organise frequent shows that attract an international audience.

Dirndl Dress: Styles & Where to See

There are two basic styles that are common: The classic Trachtendirndl, which consists of a dress and a pinafore of a certain style; colour and pattern of both pieces can express a regional or social reference. The Landhauskleid is made of linen and can be of natural colour or dyed, but has not pattern and comes with a corsage or embroidery instead of the pinafore. The latter one is usually considered less authentic and cheaper.

High-quality Dirndl dresses are made of silk, good cotton or linen and other expensive materials - a full set alongside with appropriate shoes, blouse, bag and other accessories can easily cost more than 2,000 Euros.

Contemporary designs can be quite extravagant. For the traditional ones, I recommend to see the "Salzburger Heimatwerk", an organisation that preserves folk culture of Salzburg and neighbouring regions. If you want to see Dirndl dresses, just stroll through Salzburg or any of the Salzkammergut towns. For the fancy designs, you can go to fashion shows or see the visitors of the Salzburg Festival; for traditional Tracht, go to any countryside town or village on Fronleichnam (Corpus Christi), where traditional costumes are worn at a procession.

The way that the bow of the pinafore is made signals the marital status of the woman: Is the bow on the right side, she is engaged or married; is it on the left side, she is available. If a woman wears the bow on the back, she is a widow.

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Further Reading

Heimatwerk Austria (preserves folk culture)

Ministery for Education, Culture and Science (includes folk culture)

Wikipedia on Dirndl Dresses