What exactly is "Tracht"?


 

I'd never thought I'd one day translate this page, because who outside the German-speaking parts of the world would want to learn about Tracht beyond folkloristic Lederhosen-Oktoberfest-Oompta dress-up? Turns out I was wrong. Turns out that the clichés, myths and "alternative facts" that I've been tying to weed out for years have metastasised globally. Maybe even more so than at home, thanks to tourism marketing and a lack of published research in other languages. This is for those people who have asked me, over the years, what Tracht really is.

The term "Tracht" is a difficult one. There are as many definitions as there are people who study it, and the most heated arguments can break out over the differences. I have long given up on editing the Wikipedia article for that reason.

The term

The noun Tracht is etymologically related to the verb tragen, which can be tanslated as "to carry" and "to wear". German doesn't differentiate beween carrying a load and wearing clothing, it's all tragen. There is eine Tracht Holz, which is the amount of (fire)wood you can carry, and eine Tracht Prügel, which is the amount of beating you can bear1. When it comes to textiles, it is simply clothing, or rather: the ensemble of clothing, hairdo, headdress, shoes, jewelery. It is only through context and interpretation that the definition is narrowed down to something traditional, regional, "it's always been like this".

To be sure, the early uses of the term I've enountered did seem to have some regional subtext to them: Trachtenbücher (costume books) collect dress styles from different regions of the country/continent/world. On the other hand, they also show the dress styles of different social groups when it comes to places close to home – and it's always current styles, fashion really, not something allegedly traditional.

Trachtenbücher were quite popular form the late 16th to the early 19th century, and they often have the word Tracht in the title. One of the earliest is Hans Weigel's "Im Fauwenzimmer wirt vermeldt von allerley schönen Kleidungen unnd Trachten...", published in 1577. The title mentions clothing and Tracht, so obviously they were not exactly the same. The book shows e.g. "a German prince" and a "patrician bride" without reference to a place before travelling through Germany and adjacent countries, usually specifying the social level or occupation of the subjects. Neu-eröffnete Welt-Galleria (1703) starts with the Imperial family, members and servants of the court, and progresses to the common people of the Empire. Multiple 18th century costume books highlight the dress styles of all social levels of just one city, such as Augsburg, Ulm, and Straßburg. These latter ones are clearly not about regional distinctions, but about social ones. Not just rich vs. poor, but also Protestant vs Catholic, mayor vs city guard, fisherman vs brewer. Even today, a clothing ensemble that distinguishes a person from others based on the office they occupy is called Amtstracht.

In 18th century texts, you may find the term französische Tracht (French costume) relating to what we would call "fashion of the 18th century", e.g. robes à polonaise and à l'anglaise. There is no distinction between "fashion" as something current and Tracht as something traditional; both Stadttracht (town costume) and französische Tracht were current styles.2

The historical use of the term Tracht, therefore, denotes a dress style that is typical of a group of people and distinguishes them from other groups of people. It doesn't matther whether that distionction is by region, occupation, socioeconomic level, or religion. A judge's robe, a copper's uniform and a chef's white jacket an high hat would all fall under the definion of Tracht. A surgeon's blue or green scrubs and a factory worker's boiler suit are professional Trachten, and even the dress styles of Punks distinguish them from Goths or metalheads. When using this historical definition of Tracht, it seems ridiculous to restict the meaning to something regionally distinctive and allegedly traditional, and associate it with what is nowadays worn at events like Oktoberfest or sold in Tracht shops — but on the other hand, the fugly costumes made from old flour sacks and leather that offend the eye every September can also be regarded as Tracht by that same definition: In a commuter train during rush-hour, they distinguish the group of Oktoberfest visitors from the group of locals coming home from work.

The development of the term

The historical costume books make it clear that clothing differred from region to region, so this is where the historical definition and the modern one mesh. The existence of regional differences is not terribly surprising, seeing as common people rarely travelled farther than the nearest market town because they had to do it on foot, which meant being away from the workplace for a day or two. Selling your products on the market was one of the few good reasons to do so. There were no newspapers or journals (except very, very upper crust ones like Le Mercure Galant) that could have brought information to the common folk, even if they could have read them. New fashion ideas therefore reached a small town or rural area via three avenues: Resident rich people who could afford to travel (nobility and merchants) and bring the newes fashions home, travellers (again, merchants or people of independent means), or by visiting/seeing visitors from nearby towns.

Considering how expensive clothing was in the pre-industrial era, people would not switch out all of their clothing on a whim, so the changes introduced at each of those contacts with the "outside world" would have to have been small: The shape of a collar, a new kind of trim, the skirt length... The feature that the local opinion leader(s) adopted has the best chances of being adopted by the rest of the population, and of being incorporated into the local style. The feature that was adopted was likely to be a different one in each town. The informational isolation of the common people, alleviated only by narrow and selective channels to the rest of the world, explains regional differences that grow with distance.

The larger a town is, the closer it is to the residence of nobility, and the higher in rank that nobility, the likelier it is that the population is exposed to outside influence. I believe that to be the reason why the clothing of 18th century middle class citizens of major cities only differred in detail, as costume books of the era illustrate. Casanova's memoirs (yes, the Casanova) show that many members of the idle class, as well as artists, travelled all across Europe, from one capital to the next. The inhabitants of the capitals therefore had more exposure to international fashion, so it is not surprising that the dress styles of Salzburg, Munich, Augsburg, Ulm, Straßburg, Frankfurt and Nuremberg resembled each other. Another factor is access to commodities (new fabrics and trims were first sold in major cities) and to business opportunities (catering to the rich).

Communication was then, as it is now, the medium of fashion change. The more access someone had to to communication and the farther the reach, the more their style resembled that of other regions, and also levels of society. Higher nobility as well as some intellectuals communicated Europe-wide (through letters, jorunals and travels), so they dressed in the Parisian fashion, while the communication network of common people only stretched to the next town.

The extinction of Tracht

As long as communication could only be written (in a society made up mostly of analphabets) or direct, change could only move slowly, with only the highest strata of society taking part in fashion change. From the 18th century on, region-specific clothing was almost exclusively worn by people who were out of the international communication loop: city residents, townsfolk, peasants. After invention of the railway, normal people could afford travelling farther. Fashion journals for the middle class started to emerge at about the same time; the postal network became denser and brought those journals to more places, alphabetisation widened their targe group. I believe that it is no coincidence that most regional styles of Tracht dies out in the very same era that the railway made its triumphant advance. During the course of the Industrial Revolution, urbanisaton also contributed to the tightening of communication networks. On the other hand, the rural population was excluded both from railway networks and the direct communication among city folk for much longer, in some areas well into the 20th century, until the advent of radio, even television. No wonder they clung to traditionals ways of clothing longer than city folk — but nowhere near as long as some people try to make you believe. In my studies of 18th century clothing, I have found small-town and rural fashion to lag behind "French" fashion by anywhere from 5 to 50 years, i.e. some features were adopted almost immediately, while other, older features lingered longer. The lag at the end of the 19th was more in the range of 2-15 years, but it seems longer because some notable features, such as the bustle, never really made it into rural fashion. People leading rural lives tended to not be terribly wealthy, so they looked for practicality and durability in their clothing.

The extinction of Tracht is a consequence of progess. Not just technical, but also social progess: Alphabetisation, ascent of the middle class, and finally electrificaton of even the most remote farm. Despite all the bad that came with industrialisation, who can envy the working and peasant class access to information and amenities? And, while we're at it, who is is notalgic about women having to wear floor-length skirts and corsets, about married women haing to wear their hair up under caps? The exctinction of Tracht is not just a deplorable sign of the decline of tradition, but also the liberation from societal restrictions that nobody can seriously bemoan. Well, except for some die-hard sexists.

What we nowadays regards as regional Tracht is really just a regional variation of the overall fashion of the time, fossilised at the time of its extinction, mostly around 1810-1840. The "typical" Tracht of Munich, for example, bears distinct characteristics of Biedermeier (1820s-40s) fashion. Munich women had started to adopt "regular" (i.e. international) fashion from the 1820s and largely stopped wearing regional styles during the 1840s. The distinguishing feature of Munich Tracht, the headdress known as Riegelhaube, lingered for another 10-20 years, sometimes combined with "normal" fashion as in the picture on the right. It's quite possible that neither the Munich Tracht in general nor the Riegelhaube would have lasted that long if the King of Bavaria, Ludwig I., hadn't supported it. IIRC he decreed that women wearing Tracht were to be admitted to courtly balls that they, as commoners, would not otherwise have had access to, and that the gentlemen were to prefer them as dance partners.

As soon as the regional styles were abandoned in favour of international fashion, they stopped changing. They died out.

The term Tracht nowadays

What does the term Tracht mean nowadays, in everyday use? Most people have a vague idea of something that is somehow traditional and geographically distinct, in conjunction with equally vague images of Lederhosen and Dirndl. The explanations above have hopefully shown that Tracht is much more complex than that.

When, around 1900, the Tracht preservation movement began to form, it was only natural that they use the last documented manifestation for their region as a starting point. It was the most recent and usually the easiest to research, and if you were lucky, you could still find eyewitnesses ot at least their clothing, preserved by their heirs. Tracht preservation societies used those last manifestations as a model for their manifests which dictated what society members were supposed to wear. The manifests usually did not reflect the whole range of historically documented variations, but picked out one that was declared gospel. When I attended a class for making a Riegelhaube, the trainer invited a member of a Munich Tracht society to talk to us. She told us that the regulations of her society required the Mieder (stiff bodice) to be black while acknowledging that historical Mieder could come in any colour. Some Tracht societies even invented new styles that were loosely based on historically documentable ones and decreed that they be "the" traditional style for their region. Yes, you've read that right: invented Tracht. It's one of my pet peeves. In my own home town, there is a Tracht society, founded in the 1890s, that claims to "preserve" a style of Tracht that has never been worn in my home town, maybe not anywhere before about 1880. It closely resembles the uniform of the members of arguably the oldest Tracht society, based in Miesbach, which was in the late 19th century a day's travel from my home town, and culturally quite different. It should be obvious that this society isn't preserving anything but an invented tradition. A lot of similar societies that adopt very similar dress styles as a kind of uniform call themselves Gebirgstrachtenerhaltungsverein, a typically German tapeworm word meaning "mountain costume preservation society", with no mountain anywhere near their headquarters.

But it gets even better. Or worse, really.

In the very late 19th and early 20t century, a lot of Tracht societies were founded. Tradition, or what people thought was tradition, was terribly popular. It was rooted in two very disparate movements: The Wandervogel movement with its romantic view of nature (back to the roots, a kind of early Hippies), and nationalism. It's not far from "back to the roots" to a reverence for tradition, or from nationalism to an emphasis on regional (read: ethnic) differences. As can be expected, nationalists pounced on the opportunity. I don't think it a coincidence that the oldest example of Dirndl (with that term attached) I've found so far was in a 1917 fashion magazine (WW1) and the next in a 1930s one. The Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting) has done a lovely documentary on the development of the Tracht preservation movement and how it was shanghaied by the Nazis, but I don't think it's available online.

Anyway, the Tracht preservation movement has been helped along first by romanticism, then by nationalism, and finally by mass media, in occupying and re-defining the term Tracht into something that most people nowadays associate with something traditional, always been that way, independent of changing fashions, but completely dependent on geopgraphy. Most Tracht societies frame Tracht as a very narrow set of features that is and always has been the style of their region, even if their "always" really is just a hundred years. But why should a clothing style that was invented 100-150 years ago have a better claim on the term Tracht than a style that was worn by real people in real every day life 250 years ago?

As a Living Historian, I tend to treat Tracht as I do fashion: There is not the fashion, but only the governing (European) fashion of 1568, of 1618 or of 1717. Likewise, there's an Augsburg faashion ogf 1687, 1732 or 1817, a Munich fashion of 1632, 1760 or 1830 etc. If you want to re-create a Tracht (if you haven't noticed yet, there is no THE Tracht), you have to decide not only on the region, but also on the era. For me, that means not only mimicking the overall shape and colours, but also re-creating the cut and construction and using period materials. In the Riegelhaube class mentioned above, everyone else used Lurex fabric and polyester thread, while I used silk fabric and silk thread. If nothing else, the amount of work that goes into a Riegelhaube deserves nothing less than the best materials.

Meanwhile, I have developed the following terms to differentiate between different definitions of Tracht:

  1. Historical Tracht, i.e. an ensemble of clothing, jewelery, headdress and accessories that was worn at a certain time in a certain place as everyday or at least holiday clothing by people no higher than middle class, or a faithful reconstruction thereof.
  2. Gebirgstracht (mountain costume) as "preserved" (i.e. invented) by Tracht societeies that were founded in the late 19th/early 20th century. Only loosely based on historically documentable dress styles. Society regulations result in some level of uniformity
  3. Modern Tracht as an ensemble the quotes historical Tracht at best, but also moves with the times (materials, skirt lengths) and discards elements that are considered uncomfortable (such as stiff bodices), too expensive (silver accessories) or strange by modern standards (caps). This is the category that most Oktoberfest visitors are familiar with.

If I sometimes sound as if I disliked the proponents of (2) and (3), that is only because they and their PR have managed for many years to lead me down wrong lanes while I tried to research the actual, real, historical Tracht of Munich. I'm looking at you, mountain costume preservation society in my home towm! And many others! The media, too, always converge on (3) like vultures on a cadaver, sometimes getting distracted by (2), but very very rarely even acknowledging the existence of (1).

Each of those three manifestations of Tracht has its place, in the right context, but I strongly object to the obiquitous framing of the term Tracht in the terms laid out by late 19th century societies that are not all that far from another contemporary Munich society: Cowboy Club München, founded in 1913. Their traditon is as long as that of most Tracht societies, but I haven't seen any of them claiming authority to define what Tracht is.

 

1) Kluge. Etymologisches Wörterbuch. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 1999
2) Zimmermann, P. Die junge Haushälterinn. Luzern: J.M. Anich, 1807 (1st edition 1787)
3) z.B. Abraham a Sancta Clara, Neu-eröffnete Welt-Galleria, 1703
4) Eigentliche Vorstellung der heutigen Straßburgische Mode und Kleydertrachten zu finden bey Johann Daniel Dulßecker (?), 1731
see also: Wandinger, Alexander. Tracht ist Mode. Bezirk Oberbayern, 2002

Saturday, 10-Apr-2021 02:12:57 CEST

 

 

Content, layout and images of this page 
and any sub-page of the domains marquise.de, contouche.de, lumieres.de, manteau.de and costumebase.org are copyright (c) 1997-2021 by Alexa Bender. All rights reserved. See Copyright Page. GDPO

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.