Traditional German Costumes: A guide for Expats and Tourists

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What traditional German costumes are there and what do you have to consider when styling for the Oktoberfest, Cannstatter Wasen or any other Volksfest?

Traditional German costumes used to have a dusty image. Nowadays dirndls and lederhosen are considered good manners at the Oktoberfest. But it is clear that the dirndl is worn in Bavaria. But what do you wear in the rest of Germany? In North Rhine-Westphalia or Hesse? What was the original purpose of wearing a traditional costume?

There is no one traditional German costume, even if many people think that dirndl and lederhosen are part of the general cultural heritage. Find out what is considered traditional German costumes in other German federal states.

The origin of traditional German costumes

The heyday of traditional costumes was in the early 19th century, when Napoleon celebrated his triumphal march through Europe. After all, it was unacceptable that one had to dress like the enemy and so the national pride of the Germans experienced a heyday. 

Frederick the Great made executioners dress according to French fashion to conform to the tastes of the adversary. When he died in 1786, this was taken as an opportunity to create a German national costume.

Why are traditional German costumes called Trachten?

The term Tracht comes from the Old High German word “traht” and means “that which is worn”. Today it is usually only worn as a festive costume and in clubs and groups to preserve the traditional costume.

What’s the difference between a Dirndl and a Tracht?

The dirndl is a piece of clothing for everyday use, but the traditional costume is not.

NOTE: A dirndl is a Bavarian and Austrian costume dress that was invented towards the end of the 19th century and is now widely regarded as a typical Alpine costume.

A basic distinction is made between the real, historical costume and today’s costume fashion. The traditional German costume is characterized by rather strict rules. It can vary from region to region, but is rarely worn in its original form. There are no national traditional German costumes, but the main characteristics of dirndls and lederhosen are similar everywhere.


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Definition of traditional German costumes

Traditional German costumes are the usual or conventional clothing of a region, of a certain class, or certain population groups. Traditional costumes have evolved over many centuries. In the past, farmers were often subject to rigid clothing rules. In this way, the ruling class wanted to prevent a display of pomp among working people. 

► The professional costume originally comes from the urban and artisanal environment, while the folk costume has its origins in the countryside and represents clothing typical of the region. It is full of symbolism and reveals a lot about the wearer; such as how much he owns or how wealthy he is. For example, you can see the following…

The costume reveals information about…

  • the region of origin
  • the porter’s village
  • the current economic circumstances of the carrier
  • the social status within the village community
  • the marital status of the wearer: whether they are single, married, widowed or planning to marry
  • the occasion (going to church, wedding, communion, confirmation etc.)

The traditional costume was also subject to many changes over time and so there were definitely items of clothing that one could no longer wear, unless one wanted to signal financial weakness.

Traditional German costumes by region

Below is a look at traditional German clothing by region:

1. Bavaria

Most people abroad often assume that the Bavarian costume is representative of the whole of Germany. It is ONLY the traditional clothing of Upper Bavaria (Dirndl and Lederhosen)!

There is a wide variety of other traditional Bavarian costumes such as the Dachauer Tracht, the Priener hat or the Herrschinger Hosenträgern (suspenders).

2. Baden-Württemberg

There are a number of larger and smaller details in which Württemberg traditional costumes differ from one another or from similar clothing in other regions. 

► The most striking feature is the headgear. In the entire Baden-Württemberg region there is great diversity in this regard. Well-known representatives such as the knickerbockers, tricorne hats, horned caps or wheel hoods and of course the world-famous Bollenhuts of the Black Forest costume come from here.

The Black Forest is famous for its bollard hats. In addition to the hat, there is also the Gutach costume. Another eye-catcher; the pearl braid and the sewn collar, which is otherwise called Goller. 

FACT: There are always fourteen pieces on each bollenhut.

3. Hesse

The federal state of Hesse can claim that the oldest German costumes come from there. Because in 1772 there was a decree that was supposed to promote domestic textile production and prevent fabrics for clothing from being bought elsewhere. Following the decree only clothes made locally could be worn. 

Traditionally, people wear black with colored appliqués. The Schwalm costume (Schwälmer Tracht) is also worth mentioning. 

FACT: Ladies wear up to 14 skirts one on top of the other, forming a bell shape of the Schwälmer Tracht  

The men’s waistcoats and the women’s all the ribbons and decorations were different depending on their age and family situation. 

Important facts about the Schwälmer Tracht

  • Single women and girls wear red as a sign of youth and being unmarried. 
  • After marriage, women wear green and men wear blue waistcoats. 
  • After the confirmation of the last child, the women of Schwalm usually wear blue or violet
  • In old age both men and women wear black

The mourning cloak used to be part of the mourning costume. There were small deviations in every village of the Schwalm.

► The Brothers Grimm come from this area of ​​Hesse and, according to legend, the traditional Schwälmer Tracht served as a model for the famous fairy tale character.

In Hesse you’ll also find the Marburger Katholischer Tracht from the district of Marburg Biedenkopf. The 19 Catholic villages in the old district of Amöneburg and in the courts of Neustadt and Katzenberg were the locations of a special Catholic culture. After the ecclesiastical center was relocated from Mainz to Fulda, there was a reorientation in 1821. The costumes of the Catholic villages took on the colors and shapes of the Fulda region. It started with the adoption of the “Halstuch” (breast cloth) from Fulda around 1860 and the headscarf from the Rhön around 1890. The ideal image of the Catholic Marburg costume unfolded on Sundays and public holidays. 

Traditional German Costumes
Marburger Katholischer trachten

Every two years, on the second weekend in July, the city of Schlitz in Hesse is immersed in hustle and bustle with international flair for four days. Folklore and modern sounds, traditional costumes and jeans – nowhere else do opposites meet so harmoniously. People in Schlitz wear the Schlitzerländer trachten

Traditional German Costumes
Schlitzerländer trachten

4. North Rhine-Westphalia

In the Münsterland there have been no traditional German costumes since the end of the 19th century. Red wool skirts and black aprons were traditionally worn there. Some wealthier ladies also owned belts made of gold. You wore a top that was white or cream-colored and wrapped a cloth embroidered with roses around your shoulders.

5. Saxony

The Saxon costumes are largely influenced by the mining industry.

Saxony is famous for the Siebenbürgisch-Sächsische Trachten – old German costumes from Siebenbürgen-Transilvanian Saxons.

6. Hamburg

In Hamburg, you’ll find the traditional costume from Vierlande, consisting of a white blouse and a dark skirt. A hat is also worn. The skirt often goes to the ankles.

Vierlande is the name given to a roughly 77-square-kilometer region in the Hamburg district of Bergedorf which has a population of over 20,000 and comprises four quarters of the city.

7. Brandenburg

Brandenburg was at the heart of the Germanic Prussian Empire. That’s how Slavs (Sorben/Wenden) got mixed with Germans and retained the Sorbisch/Wendisch culture in the region.

The Sorbs, who also call themselves Wenden in Brandenburg, are known for their customs and traditions such as Easter riding – but also for their traditional costumes with large bonnets. The national minority with Slavic roots has been living in what is now East Germany for around 1500 years. The Sorbs have their own language, culture and identity. Bilingualism applies in the settlement area in Lusatia.

Sorbs and Wends, what’s the difference?

The name ” Sorbs ” is borrowed from the Slavic word “Serby” and describes one of the 20 or so Slavic tribes that settled in the Spreewald. The term ” Wends ” dates back to Roman times and has survived to the present day and encompasses all Slavic tribes. Both terms are used interchangeably these days.

The integration of the Sorbs into the German Empire

Since the Sorbs did not succeed in founding their own state after immigrating, they were incorporated into the German Empire over the centuries. Then, around 1200, German farmers, merchants and craftsmen settled in the region and mixed with the Slavic tribe of the Sorbs .

Today’s Sorbs in the Spreewald

At the beginning of the 18th century, more and more German-speaking teachers were employed in schools, so the Sorbian language was increasingly pushed back. Currently, there are still 60,000 Sorbs living in Lusatia, only a few of whom still speak their Sorbian mother tongue. Only the older generations still use the language in Sorbian customs and events in the Spreewald.

With increasing awareness of tradition, the Sorbian language is being reintroduced in schools as an optional subject.

Most of the Folk costumes which are seen in this region are Sorbian. This costume is from the village of Dennewitz and is known as the Fläming tracht or Sorbisch tracht.

8. Lower Saxony

In no other federal state is the variety of costumes as great as in Lower Saxony: the association has 6754 members, bundles different costumes, connects 116 regional groups and parishes. The clothing was mainly worn in the last century, and in some cases still today by the rural population.

9. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

The general rural costume in Mecklenburg, also called Schwerin trachten (costume) for short, was the type of clothing worn almost everywhere, with the exception of the special costumes.

Men’s costume: trousers, waistcoat, smock and smock made of home-woven linen, usually dyed blue.

10. Rhineland-Palatinate

There is a wealth of different traditional costumes in Rhineland-Palatinate. The most notable are the following:

  • The Billigheim costume
  • The Bitburg costume
  • The Mutterstadt costume
  • The Hassloch costume

11. Schleswig-Holstein

In Schleswig-Holstein, traditional costumes are mainly cultivated by traditional costume clubs and folk dance groups, which are organized in the state costume and folk dance association.

12. Thuringia

Thuringia has a rich costume history but the most notable are the RUHLA costumes and the Finsterbergener costumes.

13. Saxony-Anhalt

► Did you know? Little Red Riding Hood was from Saxony-Anhalt!

One of the most famous traditional costumes in Germany comes from Saxony-Anhalt. 

14. Berlin

Traditional costumes were peasant clothing. For centuries, Berlin has been a city where people wear fashionable clothes that change much faster than peasant costumes evolved. Of course there were traditional costumes in the Brandenburg area. South of Berlin, for example, the winged bonnet costume in Fläming, the half-Sorbian costume around Dahme and the old Prussian bow bonnet costume (black silk scarf wrapped around the head and tied at the top in a bow).

15. Saarland

The heyday of the traditional costume was between 1750 and 1850. Unfortunately, from 1850 onwards, the traditional costume in Saarland almost completely disappeared. 

16. Bremen

The Bremen Tracht in the 19th century was a peasant folk costume. How Bremen sharply separated itself from the surrounding area in so many respects, political (its state independence), economic (its trade and shipping ), religious (its Reformed confession), and in many other respects, is also evident in the costume.

5 BONUS TIPS to make an impression during Oktoberfest 2022

If you are making the pilgrimage to Munich in 2022, then be aware that almost all hotels are fully booked by now and flight costs will be exploding. And no matter how many Oktoberfest parties there may be throughout Germany in autumn, the classic is still the guade oide Wiesn in MingaAnd that comes with some rules! So that you are better informed than all those who think that Weißwurscht and Helles stands for the whole of Germany, below are the 5 most important tips:

1. The bow on the dirndl reveals the status of the relationship

Traditional German Costumes

This is something both men and women need to know! Here the rules are simple: Whoever is still available wears the ribbon on the left side. The married or taken ladies should tie the bow on the right. Widowed ladies or waitresses wear their bows tied at the back. Front center traditionally means: This girl is still a virgin. But many see it as undecided.

2. A decent girl wears a long dirndl

Even if there are thousands of different variants of the traditional dress, the sexy variant of the short dirndl is notorious among Bavarians. If you don’t like the ankle-length model, a skirt and calf-length apron are fine too. If you wear a short mini dirndl, you should at least be prepared for angry looks from the locals. But there are many tourists there for whom the choice of clothes is not that important.

3. The leather pants have to fit

Traditional German Costumes

Traditional lederhosen made of deerskin can cost a lot of money and, understandably, one or the other man will reach for a cheaper variant. Nevertheless, you should note the following: Buttons made of staghorn or staghorn look are a classic. You can’t go wrong with knee-length leather trousers. For the trousers to fit properly, they must fit snugly when you buy them. After short wear (and a few loads of beer) the leather expands anyway. The embroidery should be plain. Experimentation outside of white, green, or yellow foliage embroidery should be avoided whenever possible. When it comes to belts and suspenders, you are quite flexible. The only important thing is: Please wear matching leather and a restrained design, and if you have braces, don’t let them hang down.

4. With the right footwear you can party all day long

Women traditionally wear flat shoes with crocheted stockings. Especially for men, knee socks – the so-called “Loferl” – are a must. This includes Haferl shoes. This leather shoe can be recognized by its rather chunky shape, angular tips and the side lacing. If you don’t want to buy extra traditional shoes, you can use leather boots instead. Stay away from sneakers or flip-flops – they are an absolute no-go when styling at Oktoberfest!

5. Ordering for beginners – this is how it’s done

If you don’t want to embarrass yourself, simply order a “Maß” over and over again. We repeat: “Maß” – that means short “A” – spoken: “Mass”. If you are still hungry, you can either order “a Hendl” (grilled chicken) or “a Brezn” (pretzel).


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