For a doyenne of contemporary fashion, Susanne Bisovksy has some unbeatable credentials. As a student, the Austrian designer trained with Vivienne Westwood, the fashion world’s favorite rebel. Since then, her flair for the original has found plenty of admirers among the big names of couture. France’s modish Jean-Charles de Castelbajac is a fan, and so, too, is her compatriot and onetime mentor Helmut Lang. Remember his lace and latex outfits of the 1990s? They were Bisovsky creations.
But it’s reinvention as much as novelty that brings clients to her Vienna showroom these days. To be sure, the converted silk factory testifies to a continuing passion for the eccentric: Tin boxes painted in floral patterns line the walls right up to the ceiling. But much of the 49-year-old’s appeal to fashionistas lies with her radical take on tracht, the traditional folk costume of Bavaria and Austria. The great wheel of fashion has turned again. Tweaked for the 21st century, the dirndl and lederhosen are back.
And that rediscovered passion isn’t confined to the rich and chic, ready to pay up to €3,000 for one of Bisovsky magnificent takes on traditional dress. When a global throng descends on Munich for the annual Oktoberfest, tracht will once again be standard dress at the great Bavarian festival of beer and bonhomie. A whole new generation of women and men finds nothing embarrassing about tight bodices and aprons, or richly embroidered leather shorts with suspenders. “When I was studying, tracht was frowned upon,” says Bisovsky. “Now, every other wedding in Austria takes place in tracht.”
That’s good news for old-style suppliers of Southern Germany. Angermaier, a traditional retailer with two shops in Munich, has seen sales of lederhosen double in the last 10 years, while its sales of dirndls have risen fivefold over the same period. Dirndls, in more than 150 styles, can now be found across 15 pages on the company’s website. At the other end of the market, mass-produced outfits — sometimes made in Asia — are on offer at Main Street stores for as little as €50 in the run-up to Oktoberfest.
But the long wait for today’s revival tested the retailers’ patience. Tracht derives from the ancient workwear of the peasants of Austria and South Germany, adapted and refined for all classes in the 19th century as romantic ideas of rural life took hold. (Today’s colorful designs largely stem from that earlier revival.) But a costume so steeped in national history acquired awkward associations. In the 1930s, tracht was tainted with Nazism and, afterward, with the ultra-conservative politics of Bavaria’s Christian Democrats. For decades, it was spurned by the young, who saw wearing a loden coat or dirndl as an unsavory political statement.
So why the rehabilitation, now entering its second decade with little sign of abating? Most explanations begin with a yearning for permanence and tradition in a fast-changing, globalized world. Maybe, too, a new generation is happy enough with Germany’s present to overlook tracht’s past history. Some cultural historians date the dirndl’s revival to a new and positive national spirit that came with Germany’s successful hosting of the 2006 World Cup.
What has sped the dirndl’s return to favor among the fashion-conscious is the new look created by the latest designers. Forget the idea of a limited range of materials available only in muted colors. The classic shape — bodice and flowing skirt — is still the norm, but these dirndls can come in brilliant stripes, floral prints or flashy leopard skin.
OK, purists might revolt at some of the innovations. Raw silk, spangled aprons and hand-stitched rhinestone swirls have little to do with the Tyrol or Bavarian Alps. Bisovksy’s own designs have featured towering floral hats and skirts in a brilliant blue that would have startled Heidi on her Swiss mountaintop or any Munich matron of the 19th century.
For some, too, the very idea of manufacturing outside the region is abhorrent. “It’s not the same when the goods come from Pakistan or China,” says Thomas Rettl, a purveyor of tracht in the Austrian town of Villach who claims members of the British and Danish royal families among his customers. “The basic idea of a costume is to express a sense of belonging.” (Such authenticity doesn’t always come cheap. Rettl’s buckskin lederhosen start at €1,000.)
But what sells today is a mix of tradition and novelty. Take the case of Lola Paltinger, a pioneer of new-look tracht who launched a business with her mother 19 years ago. Today, her Munich-based company’s clients include heiress Paris Hilton and actress Katy Perry, doubtless intrigued by a collection that includes kid-leather women’s lederhosen for “the Alpine wild child and the home-loving cowgirl.”
Or how about Cameroonian sisters Rahmée Wetterich and Marie Darouiche? Their business, Munich-based Noh Nee, sells dirndls with an African twist, working with boldly colored fabrics from West Africa, designed by the Senegalese artist Aissa Dione. To borrow a phrase from the company website, this is “dirndl à l’africaine” — a deliberate attempt at cultural fusion.
But in the end, it’s the classic shape that counts. Who wouldn’t want the hourglass figure than a well-cut dirndl can offer? In the words of Vivienne Westwood on a visit to Austria in 2001: “I do not understand you Austrians. If every woman wore a dirndl, there would be no more ugliness.” True elegance never quite goes out of style.