Adventures in dressing German: a dirndl story

Dressing like the locals sometimes means moving out of your comfort zone -- only to find you belong

Guest post By Erin McGann of Erin at Large

  Erin testing out local fashion in Speyer

Erin testing out local fashion in Speyer

I became strangely obsessed about owning a dirndl about a year ago.

The very Bavarian traditional dress and blouse combination accented by an apron is something I never thought about much before I moved to Germany. I mean, I had seen all the silly references to it, women with crown braids and flowers in their hair, holding up massive Maße filled with frothy beer. The idea I would ever wear a dirndl myself seemed ridiculous, far-fetched.

But then, I moved to southern Germany in August 2016 and the dresses were everywhere. I was in the department store trying to fill my son’s oddly specific school supplies list and the windows were filled with mannequins adorned in dirndls and lederhosen. I hadn’t seen anyone wear them out and about; did people really drop hundreds of Euros on them?

The more I travelled around Germany and Austria, the more dirndl wearers I encountered. The women running small guesthouses with restaurants on the ground floor swirled around in floor-length dirndls, which looked practical and elegant. A far cry from the ridiculous cleavage-bearing images I saw floating around the internet.

It was after attending the Bad Durkheim wine festival that I started thinking about investing in my own dirndl. Bad Durkheim is a town in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany and hosts the biggest wine festival in the world. It’s a bit confusing if you’re not used to the German model of festivals. There are many stands to try local wines, roving brass bands to serenade you with polka music, and tents to rent tables to dance into the night to cheesy Schlager music. There are also many stalls selling variations on bratwurst, currywurst, or venison burgers, games of chance, and rides blasting bad pop music. It’s a bit like a state fair or large village fete crashed into a beer/wine festival. At high speed.

The festival was full of traditional Bavarian clothes. Groups of men in matching Lederhosen, women in dirndls and beautiful cardigans laughing uproariously. Children in adorably miniature versions of the same. It seemed perfectly natural. It made the whole thing feel more like an event.

I started on my own quest to find a dirndl.

It turns out, there are many many kinds of dirndl. There are the cheap kinds, like those you buy in the train station in Munich, which land above the knee and are thus considered too short and highly flammable and, according to Germans, not really the proper ones. There are the gorgeous, yet very expensive kind  that people invest in for weddings and have custom-fitted. I was hoping for something more mid-range in price: a proper dirndl that would not cost me a month’s rent. And although dirndls are cut to be flattering to just about every body type, I am not a size usually carried in the local shops in my corner of southwestern Germany, so I went online. In Bavaria, you might have better luck than I did with brick-and-mortar shops in Heidelberg, as there are more options, with a broad range of sizes in other cities.

  Even off the rack, the cost of a dirndl can run in the hundreds of Euros

Even off the rack, the cost of a dirndl can run in the hundreds of Euros

Like I said, dirndls are very flattering to pretty much any shape. You are encouraged to buy one as tight as you can manage to pour your top half into. Seamed at the waist in a way to give you support, it doesn’t feel as uncomfortable as it sounds once you’re laced in. And you can choose the blouse to wear beneath the dress -- often just a half-shirt with three buttons, a v-neck and puffed sleeves that barely cover your breasts while also covering up major cleavage.

My first time wearing my dirndl out was at the Speyer Brezelfest, and I was nervous as we parked our car. We didn’t see anyone else in trachten at first, and I was feeling silly. But as we headed to the festival site, no one reacted to our small family in lederhosen and dirndl – I could have been wearing jeans and a t-shirt. An hour into our visit, women in dirndls started appearing, and I felt fine. In fact, quite proud of my grey and pink cotton dirndl, which turned out to be perfect for daytime festival wear. I felt part of it. Even as I wore mine while wandering around a festival site for five hours on an afternoon that reached 30º/86ºF, it really wasn’t that bad.  The best bit was walking into town and making a tourist family gasp and elbow each other in a very sweet and fascinated way. I didn’t feel pointed at, I felt like I had completed their German holiday.

I love a mid-length dress and cardigan combination for most occasions, so in some ways, the dirndl is not much of a stretch. But wandering around a local fair, watching my son play games, drinking local wine, and eating a Flammkuchen pulled out of a wood-fired oven right in front of me, I couldn’t help but feel a bit connected to the women many generations before me that have done the same thing.

— Guest post (c) Erin McGann