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CULTURAL TRADITIONS in FASHION. The Tracht and the Dirndl: Iconic German Dresses


Imagine wearing a dress from which people could decipher so much about you, from your social standing to your marital status. In many German speaking countries, it was common to see women wearing one of two styles of dresses that each had designs holding significant meaning within German culture. These dresses are known as the Tracht and the Dirndl.

The Tracht is known as the traditional German costume that comes is different colors and styles depending on the wearer’s social status and origins. However, the Dirndl is a different style of costume worn in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Bavaria, and Liechtenstein, made of several layers of fabric. Depending on the colour, style, and direction in which the apron knot was tied, these gowns could reveal if a woman came from a family of farmers or a nobleman, a single woman or married. Additionally, there was an official code which specified how the knot on the Dirndl was to be worn. Living in the 21st century, we tend to be averse to the suggestion that people can judge us based on our clothing, but this is a far leap from these traditional German gowns which can reveal many intimate details about the wearer.



Although the Tracht and Dirndl sound somewhat similar, there are quite a few differences between them. Worn most commonly in Austria and Bavaria, the Tracht dress is worn most often at festivals and parties, such as Oktoberfest. In the past the Dirndl gown was seen at important events and holidays, but it would seem the Tracht has made a comeback to popular German fashion in recent years.


The Tracht was originally designed in 1626 and was intended to be worn by various groups and statuses including: townspeople, farmers, knights, nobility, doctors and women. These would all have had specific designs that revealed which group the wearer belonged to. These groups each had rules as to how expensive the material could be and how much jewelry the wearer could have. The Tracht became a regional costume in 1644 when the Bavarian Elector introduced a dress code allowing women more freedom with the design of their gown.

Most of these gowns were made of natural materials such as silk and wool with lace and embroidery for decoration. Remaining the same long length through the 21st century, the Tracht is unlike the Dirndl in that it does not flatter the female figure.



Beginning in the 19th century, the Dirndl became a popular form of attire in German-speaking countries as it was a more form-fitting dress that could be worn for work and physical activities. Unlike the Tracht, the Dirndl is a more practical German dress, with the name originating from the term ‘Dirndlgewand’, which means ‘maid’s dress.’ It was common to see 19th century maids wearing this gown in simple colors and patterns, made of durable materials. There is a great deal of symbolism tied to the Dirndl in regard to the wearer’s marital status. This gown is always worn with an apron which is tied with a knot at different places about the hips to reveal if the woman was married, single, or a widow:

  • If the wearer has a knot to the right side of her waist, she is either engaged or married;

  • If worn to the left side, this symbolizes that the wearer is single, and

  • Tied in the back means that she is a widow.


Although the Dirndl was known as a maid’s dress for many years, it eventually became a fashionable style in the 1870s. This is due to the upper class discovering that the Dirndl was a convenient dress to wear to one’s country home with its practical design. From this point forward, the Dirndl was no longer a dress fit for a maid and was often worn to special occasions. These gowns began to incorporate embroidery, with a white blouse worn underneath, accompanied by a skirt that varied in length depending on the current fashions.



The Tracht and Dirndl are now most commonly spotted at large German festivals, namely Oktoberfest. While many women choose to wear traditional Dirndls to these celebrations, it is not uncommon to see men’s fashions worn by women, such as lederhosen over the top of a white blouse which is usually worn under the Dirndl dress. The Tracht dress has branched out in the 21st century to pants and shoes, including brightly colored trousers and knee-high boots, giving traditional German dress a modern twist.


Although the traditional German gowns have evolved since the 1800s, they still create a sense of national pride. German festivals demonstrate how the traditional Dirndls and Trachts continue to be worn, whilst also being intermixed with modern trends, bringing together the old and the new of German togetherness.