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by Karen Engel

Should a Jewish Girl Wear a Dirndl? (And Other Questions About Jews And Tracht)

Illustration by Shifra Whiteman

Illustration by Shifra Whiteman

It was Erev Rosh Hashana and my 19-year-old daughter, Janina, was joining us at synagogue after spending the day at a city-wide festival in the province of southern Austria where we live. Every September, folk music groups, artisans, folk dancers, and a lot of tourists throng the medieval streets of Graz to celebrate Styrian folk culture, which importantly includes dirndls  a traditional dress with an apron, bodice and relatively low-cut blouse. Not only are dirndls not typical feminist attire, but Jews, historically speaking, have a troubled relationship with them, as well as with their male counterpart, lederhosen.

So when Janina breezed into shul that warm September evening dressed like an Austrian peasant, a visitor turned to her and asked incredulously, “Are you Jewish?”

Janina, who grew up in Graz and has attended services her whole life here, was deeply offended.

“Of course I’m Jewish,” she answered. 

For many jews, dirndls and lederhosen are almost on the order of swastikas, associated as they are with right-wing political groups and with the Nazi glorification of German volk culture. When the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938, one of the first things they did was ban Jews from wearing them.

Tracht (the German term for traditional folkloric dress) was popular among Jews and other members of the rising upper  and middle classes before the Holocaust, especially the well-to-do who packed up their belongings each summer and moved to Alpine resorts like Bad Ischl and Bad Aussee. Dressing up in Tracht was campy and fun, and it was also an appropriation of Austrian insider-ness. When Hitler forbade Jews to wear dirndls and lederhosen, he understood the semiotics.

In the last few years, Tracht has staged a fashionable comeback in both Austria and Germany, and it’s suddenly not uncommon to see teens and twenty-somethings wearing dirndls and lederhosen to weddings, parties and even to the office. Variations abound, from traditional fabrics and designs specific to certain regions or towns (like the Black Forest and Bad Aussee) to “designer Tracht” by such rising stars as Lena Hoschek who mixes old motifs with new styles and fabrics. Gloria Cudjo of Hamburg has started a unique line of Tracht that uses African materials — a culture-clash expression of her Ghana-German identity. And then, of course, there’s always Tracht kitsch for tourists, immutably gaudy and inexpensive.

But a Jewish girl wearing a dirndl? 

Well, the history of tracht is bound up with Jews in more ways than one. Although dirndls and lederhosen originated some 400 years ago as the work clothes of Alpine peasants — with a finer version for Sundays and holidays designating a person’s social, marital and economic status — they became more popular in the 19th century, largely as a romantic response to the modern industrial age.

Tracht was worn mainly in the countryside. In 1900, though, two Jewish brothers, Julius and Moritz Wallach, opened a clothing store in the Bavarian city of Munich and had the clever and successful idea of marketing dirndls and lederhosen as a kind of urban “rural chic.” In 1939, the Wallachs’ store was “Aryanized.” And today, when one thinks of all the lederhosen and dirndls worn by beer-guzzling Germans (and tourists) at Munich’s huge Oktoberfest, it’s odd to think about two Jews spearheading this fashion trend.

Before the Holocaust, Jews not only wore Tracht, they were also germinal ethnographers of Alpine and folkloric culture. In the 1920s, Eugenie Goldstern’s research on Alpine cultures of the Habsburg monarchy was groundbreaking in its focus on how these societies adapted to change. This was in contrast to other scholars’ idealized presentation of Alpine life as untainted by, and immune to, change. Goldstern’s collections of folk art and artifacts became important mainstays of both the Vienna and Bern museums of folklore.

She fought against the nationalist and racist ideologies that were ruggedly in vogue in the field of ethnography in her time, but she failed to recognize how dangerous they had really become. In June of 1942, Goldstern was deported from Vienna to Lublin, where she died in the Sobibor extermination camp.

Much of what we know today about Austrian folk music (and Alpine culture as well) is thanks to another Austrian Jew, Konrad Mautner (1880 –1924), the son of a Viennese textile merchant who loved the country life. He spoke dialect, wore lederhosen, and relished hunting, fishing, singing, dancing and smoking with the locals of the small village of Gössl in the picturesque Salzkammergut region of Austria. Mautner’s collections of Austrian folk songs and Tracht are fundamental to today’s understanding of Austrian folk culture.

Since 2006, the Konrad Mautner Prize has been awarded every two years to a person who promotes the wearing of Tracht. In 2008, the award went to the Austrian actor and writer Miguel Herz-Kestrenek, who happens also to be a Jew; he comes from a prominent, assimilated Austrian-Jewish family. 

“My father was forbidden to wear [lederhosen] and so was my grandfather. I wear lederhosen precisely because Jews were once forbidden to,” he said in his acceptance speech. “Tracht is not the expression of, nor a relic of, the era of blood, soil and race, but rather a protest against it. It is not a uniform, but its opposite: an expression of extreme individualism, not only from valley to valley, but from village to village.”

Herz-Kestrenek received the prize exactly 70 years after the Anschluss of Austria to Nazi Germany, a fact that was noted prominently in his speech.

Herz-Kestrenek’s logic also informs the attitudes of Claudia Saltiel, a friend of mine and a member of Graz’s Jewish community. Claudia hates uniforms, whether dictated by the military or fashion. She not only grew up wearing dirndls, but her family includes four generations of Jewish dirndl-wearing women. She says that her grandmother, who was originally from Czernowitz (in today’s Romania), wore dirndls to “fit in” with Bad Ischl society. Her mother, as a very young girl in Salzburg, survived the Holocaust in hiding — and after that always wore dirndls as was common in the Salzburg region, where she continued to live after the war. Claudia’s daughter, Rivka, wears dirndls from time to time because, she says simply, “I like them.”

It’s one thing, though, when your friends wear dirndls, and another when your own daughter starts wearing them. As a Jewish-American feminist who moved to Austria more than 20 years ago as a radio reporter, I have mixed feelings about Tracht.

I have to admit that dirndls have a very flattering cut, and at different times during their childhoods, I dressed both my girls in them for special occasions. The girls always looked adorable; never overdressed or sexy. Unlike my daughters, though, I am not even half-Austrian, so dirndls aren’t part of my heritage.

My daughter Janina, who graduated from a secondary school that specializes in fashion design, tells me that she likes dirndls not only as an expression of her mixed cultural heritage, but also as a feminist.

“The fashion
industry is all about women being skinny, and the dirndl is a statement in defiance of that,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how fat or how skinny you are; women with very curvy bodies look great in dirndls.”

She also has feelings about wearing that dirndl to synagogue.

“Jews especially should wear them because there were laws prohibiting us from doing so. I want to signal that I’m Jewish, I’m Austrian, and I’m proud to be both Jewish and Austrian. We live in the 21st century! This should not even be a question.”

Nonetheless, I doubted I would ever wear a dirndl myself — except then I realized that I already had. A few years ago, I came across the only image of me as a child taken by a professional photographer: in a dirndl. I don’t know who chose that outfit — my parents were Polish- and American-born, my father losing many family members in the Holocaust — and today I can’t ask them anymore.

But they must’ve seen the dirndl as simply a dress. Is it time for me to try to do that, too? 

 

Karen Engel has reported for NPR, the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation and Deutsche Welle, and co-founded a Jewish cultural center in Graz. Her daughter Janina was the first girl in Graz to chant from the Torah; her daughter Milena the first to chant her Haftorah as well. 

The Politics of Paradox

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BLT Judaism

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Bacon? One woman creates her own Jewish tradition out of the most untraditional food of all.

Illustration by Shifra Whiteman

Should a Jewish Girl Wear a Dirndl? (And Other Questions About Jews And Tracht)

by Karen Engel

In Germany and Austria, traditional German peasant dresses, like the dirndl — once forbidden for Jews to wear — have made a comeback. Is it okay when even the author’s daughters are wearing them? And here’s a rundown of the restrictions on Jewish women’s clothing over the centuries, in case you thought the yellow star was a first.


  • InternalParadox

    I have never heard of dirndls before, and found this article quite fascinating. The Nazi’s poisoned everything they touched. Which is why, despite the long and beautiful legacy of German Jews, many Jews feel “dirty” buying a German vehicle or even learning the German language (which is the main foundation of Yiddish!) I would never discount the feelings of survivors or my fellow children and Grandchildren of Survivors. I have personally felt the ripples of the Holocaust my entire life, and the pain is still so real and raw 70 years later. I’m not sure how I feel about dirndls specifically, but I don’t think German language or history should be avoided forever, lest some of our own history (from the German connection to Yiddish to Yekki traditions) be lost as well.

    On another note, the dirndls resurgence and popularity reminds me of other nationalistic wear, like Japan’s Kimono (which are still worn on special occasions by Japanese today)..

  • wonderer

    First of all I think your article is very impressive and also brave. I’m not Jewish so I of course cannot relate to your feelings and in my opinion you did something so important – you opened up a discourse. This is the only way to overcome the barriers which are still in our minds.

    What’s to come might seem totally unrelated at first but I hope I am able to tie the knots together and make clear to what conclusion I came to after thinking about this article. I am 21 years of age and I am Austrian. I have been ashamed to be Austrian many times, because of our history and because we refused to talk about it for years. Sometimes I am still ashamed because of the nonchalance with which some Austrians deal with this time in our history, and even more because some still deny it. That is one reason why I started to study history – I wanted to dissociate myself from those people and their believes. I wanted to know the terrible things that happened in order to help build a future in which such atroceries will never happen again. The first thing I had to realize when starting my studies was that I have to stop blaming myself and everyone with an Austrian passport or citizenship. In a way I had to dissociate myself from our past in order to be able to reflect on the Nazi regime. Please do not get me wrong, I’m in no way suggesting that Austrians or their government was not guilty. I only want to say that although there are people who still believe in those ideologies which are inhuman and simply wrong, there are also many people who fight for a better future which is based on acceptance and respect. In my opinion an important tool therefor is to approach intercultural, interreligious, etc. exchange. I think the best way we can work out those terrible happenings is hand in hand.

    I am in no position to say whether it’s right or wrong for a Jewish girl to wear a dirndl. I myself love to wear them but I think everyone should decide for him/herself whether to wear Tracht. I just think that Tracht was not created as a tool for oppression and isolation but rather as a means of identification. Sadly Tracht just like much of our cultural heritage was used by the Nazis (and their supporters) to represent said oppression. In my opinion identifying with the help of something does not necessarily mean isolating oneself from the others, maybe that’s what it used to be, maybe it still is for some people but there are people out there who don’t see it like that. I think we need to be aware of what Tracht stood for in the Nazi time but we should not solely concentrate on that. This might be hard or maybe not even possible for you – which is understandable. I, at least have to think this way, in order to not feel ashamed most of the time and be able to work for a future in which respect and acceptance are as natural as possible.

    I think I kind of lost track – I still want to post this though, even if the only thing you can make of it is a compliment for your very interesting question and well researched article.

  • Tara

    Fair enough – why should ultra-orthodox men get to monopolize all the picturesque anachronistic European styles?

    • Billy Kravitz

      why should bishops get to wear miters?… they do so for religious reasons…Hasidic type Jews do the same… Anyone born into or converted to those beliefs will dress that way… Why should nuns be the only women to wear what began as medieval raiment ?… In Alpine regions ‘tracht’ was in many ways similar to sports team hats and attire people wear today.. It was an identification with a region and Alpine Jews (before most were martyred) were there for many centuries…. You do whatever your conscience tells you is right.

  • Frau Kolb

    The dirndls I have were a gift from my husband’s mother. Handmade, they fit me perfectly, and I wear them on holidays with pride. Even though, I’m an Afro-Latin New Yorker: I feel the connection and a pretty dress is sometimes more than a mere frock.

  • Primrose

    Thank you so very much for writing this beautiful well thought and explored article. I am half Austrian and was so ignorant to how this part of Austrian/ Austiran jewish heritage was stolen and tainted by the Nazi’s. I admire your daughter for reclaiming what is rightfully her’s! I truly hope the dirndl in the illustration is made as I believe it is gorgeous and would be a perfect reclamation of heritage. Further more Thank you for the history. I would never wish to offend anyone, the dirndl is part of my heritage so it was disheartening when recently a friend told me that some may find it offensive. With your history lesson I can rest assured that not only have Jewish people proudly worn the tracht but we have them to thank for taking it the masses and making it fashionable for all Austrians not just country people.