Why “Trachten”?

Every knitwear design has its’ inspiration, and when I started to research Irish Aran knitwear design, I learned that textile historians frequently make the connection between textured Aran stitches and traditional Trachten fabrics, and that there is a suggestion that many of the Aran stitch patterns came via Germany through the USA. But what are “Trachten”, and why have they impacted textile history so heavily?

Trachten can be defined as traditional garments worn in German speaking regions. The word originates from the old German for the verb “tragen” or “to wear”; it can also mean “proper” or “thorough”.

I grew up in the town of Kassel in the state of Hessen, a German area where the Brothers Grimm wrote their fairy tales, and where half-timbered houses lean towards each over in narrow cobbled steets. Hessen also has one of the oldest Trachten traditions in the country, and the largest range of costume styles; my immediate area alone is home to more than 25 distinctly different styles of costume.

When I grew up, full body Trachten costume was worn at cultural events and festivals only, and was considered a means to remember times long passed. Recently though, Trachten have undergone an explosive revival, making it acceptable and even fashionable to wear them. They can be seen as a statement to support – or contradict – political opinion, are used as a vehicle to re-interpret what it means to be German by designers who combine international traditions, and are being made part of High Fashion.

But Trachten are much more than what many people consider “Bavarian style” leather trousers and Dirndl dresses with low cleavage. Trachten define German culture throughout the ages and incorporate a vast, diverse body of styles and uses.

Trachten Styles

Each Federal State in Germany is home to a distinctly different style of Tracht. The development of the large range of individual styles is rooted in a range of factors, such as available materials and fashions popular in surrounding areas.

Historically, Trachten were worn as a statement of belonging to a particular social class or group, occupation, or religion. Different pieces were worn depending on the occasion such as Mass visits, a wedding or a festival, the age, wealth, circumstance and status of the wearer, or the activity at the time – such as outdoor harvesting in a dry field, dirty and wet farm work, or cooking in a clean kitchen.

Costumes consist mostly of natural wool, linen and cotton fibres in rich, earthy colours – in actual fact, colour is one of the most meaningful parts of the costume among the many coded traditional meanings. Simply by the colour present in a garment was it possible to determine age, marital status, and occasion. Statement pieces like chest cloths, borders along hems, collar bands and sock straps can feature colourful embroidery, beading and metal wiring, while base fabrics are generally of one rich colour with a symmetrical repeat pattern for embellishment. Pieces are heavily layered and combine to create a collage of rustic, heavily pleated and folded fabrics in strong colours of all weights from see-through lace to heavy woolen cloth. Instead of coats, heavy woolen cloth was worn to cover the upper body from head to hips and closed in the front with 2 large clasps.

Trachten History

Trachten are said to have been a rural development. Nonetheless, the prevailing dress code in early 16th Century Germany prevented the development of individual fashion styles. As soon as peasants were allowed to buy their freedom in 1800, individual and colourful clothing styles developed; this was the cradle of the Trachten tradition. Fabrics were combined and embellished, skirts were layered, and class division became apparent in the wearer’s fashion.

The first written description of traditional German Tracht was given by a Bavarian official called Joseph von Hazzi (1867 – 1845), a Councillor responsible for the promotion of Bavarian agriculture. At the Oktoberfest in Munich in 1835, the first parade of traditional costumes took place to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and his wife, Queen Therese.

This was the time which saw the emergence of the German “Trachtenbewegung” or “Trachten Movement”, which reached its’ height in the mid-19th Century. The “Trachtenbewegung” became the expression of a wider cultural response to the suppression of national identity felt by the people, which came from repeated foreign invasions during the Napoleonic Wars – people sought a new affirmation of their German individuality, which resulted in the creation of artistic work centering around cultural belonging and found expression in painting, literature, music, language, folklore, and clothing.

Maximilian II, successor of King Ludwig I, took the love for Trachten one step further and officially recognized traditional costume as clothing which was deemed suitable to wear at the royal court. In 1890, the first umbrella organisation for Trachten was formed, and the Oktoberfest in 1895 featured an impressive 150 traditional costume groups.

By the time we arrive in the 20th Century, a more contemporary Trachten style became a popular clothing choice. It was worn in both city and country, and became an affordable alternative to the often expensive fashion of the time.

The combination of the romanticized German ideal embodied in a traditional outfit and its’ wide reach among the population propelled Trachten into its’ next stage of evolution – its’ usefulness to support Hitlers’ propaganda machine. In the mid-1930’s, Government officials were sent into rural areas to undertake “Dirndl research”, and a number of changes were made under the ruling of Gertrud Pesendorfer (1895 – 1982), the then “Reich Commissioner for German Costume” to “moderately spice up” the traditional shape. She ordered the introduction of puff sleeves, shortening of the skirt just below the knee, a tighter waist, and removal of the collar. This was the new every-day dress code for the modern, law abiding Aryan woman, and this design replaced individual costume styles around the country by law. Hitler’s effort led to the type of German traditional outfit many of us most associate with Trachten today: tightly fitted Dirndl dresses and Lederhosen (trousers made from leather, which are often buttoned below the knee).

After WW2, Trachten became awkward fashion items due to their political association. Nonetheless, with the arrival of the 21st Century, the Bavarian Dirndl and Lederhosen Tracht have seen a revival. Made in a range of styles from exclusively hand tailored statement pieces to High Street department store items at affordable prices to cross-culture influenced pieces made from exotic fabrics (such as Cameroonian sisters Marie Daroiuche and Rahmee Wetterich with their brand Noh Nee), this development of Trachten has surprised many. Fashion designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Vivienne Westwood to name but a few have included Trachten into their collections.

How do Trachten influence my designs?

Trachten are part of my heritage and feel quintessentially German to me. When I think of Trachten, I remember village festivals, hearty meals and sitting on hay stacks with my friends from school. In my opinion these traditional garments are pieces of art in a multitude of designs, excuisitely construct by masters of many individual textile crafts which are needed to create each individual layer and accessory.

I use design elements such as the natural fibres, the rich colour combinations and symmetric patterns, the layering, pleating, and combination of fabric weights, and re-arrange them to turn out a garment I would love to wear, to make me feel comfortable, grounded and “at home”.

I hope they will make you feel the same!


Aran Design: The Creative Knitter’s Handbook by Rita Taylor, 2018, published by Crowood Press

Fashion under the Swastika: An Analysis of Women’s Fashion during the Third Reich by A. Johnson, 2018: https://digscholarship.unco.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1178&context=urj