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If you’re at a lively festival and hear beer mugs clinking, revelers shouting “Prost,” a polka band playing a spirited rendition of “Ein Prosit,” and dancer’s feet stomping on the dance floor, you’re likely at an authentic German Oktoberfest celebration. Giant soft pretzels, sizzling sausages, roasted meats, potato pancakes, and sauerkraut are just a few of the foods to enjoy. Band members and festival attendees wear traditional German attire such as lederhosen. In Germany, lederhosen are part of a traditional male outfit for any cultural festival — specifically Oktoberfest. However, lederhosen aren’t just donned at celebrations. They actually have a long history in Europe. Here’s a shortened guide to the history behind these iconic trousers.
What Are Lederhosen?
Lederhosen, which translates to “leather breeches,” are kurze (short, above the knee) or kniebund (knee-length) leather pants with suspenders. Colors range from black to light brown. The suspenders typically have a piece of leather across the chest that links them together, creating an “H” shape. Elaborate embroidery and metal snaps and buckles adorn both the pants and suspenders. Many lederhosen have a front flap, which is also known as a hosntürl (little trouser door), that drops open — making bathroom visits a little easier.
Men usually wear lederhosen with a long-sleeved, collared, plain or checkered shirt, strumpfhosen (knee socks), brown or black leather haferl (shoes), and sometimes a felt hat. A lederhosen ensemble is one of the most recognizable clothing outfits in the world and will forever be associated with German culture — particularly in the southern state of Bavaria. In addition to traditional festivals, men often still wear lederhosen to church and on holidays and special occasions.
What Are Dirndl?
You can’t discuss lederhosen without mentioning the most iconic folk outfit for women in Germany — the dirndl. The dirndl consists of a short-sleeved blouse with puffy sleeves, a tight-fitting bodice, a knee-length and full skirt, and an apron. If you plan to wear a dirndl to an Oktoberfest party, be mindful of where you tie your apron’s bow! The bow’s location telecasts a woman’s marital status. When it’s tied on the right, it implies she is married or taken. When it’s tied on the left, it means she’s single. When it’s tied in the back, it means she’s widowed. The dirndl and lederhosen have an intertwined history, so you’ll see just as many dirndls as lederhosen at any German heritage festival.
The Origin of Lederhosen
Today, most German men only wear lederhosen as part of a costume during a cultural event, but they weren’t always considered a party outfit or even traditional. It wasn’t only the Germans who wore lederhosen. Men in the surrounding countries and regions in the Alps such as Austria, Switzerland, and northern Italy wore lederhosen. The specific style we associate with lederhosen today originated in Bavaria during the 18th century. However, before lederhosen became the popular style of dress in Bavaria, there was the Bavarian tracht.
The Bavarian Tracht
“Tracht” basically means the traditional clothing of German-speaking countries, which differed depending on regions and social class. In the 16th century, French culottes (knee britches) gained popularity among European aristocracy and were made from soft, luxurious fabrics. In 1626, Bavarian Prince-Elector Maximilian I established a dress code law to distinguish seven groups of people: nobility, knights, minor aristocracy, commercial people, merchants, townspeople, and farmers.
The law prohibited farmers from wearing imported clothing and valuable jewelry. The higher one’s group ranked, the more luxuries and imported garments and jewelry they were permitted to wear. By 1644, the dress code laws permitted regional variations in clothing independent of their profession and social status. Local variations in clothing styles began emerging such as lederhosen.
By the 18th century, alpine peasant workers were making culottes from leather since it was durable enough to handle their demanding outdoor work conditions. Similar to carpenter pants today, lederhosen had multiple pockets to hold knives and small tools. Around the same time, hunters and horseback riders living in the Alpine regions began wearing the leather trousers for the same reason — they held up better than the soft fabrics.
Bavarians made a unique modification that has since differentiated their style of lederhosen from others — they added the useful hosntürl (little flap) to the front. The style became popular in regions beyond Bavaria such as France. The French dubbed it “a la Bavaroise” or “Bavarian style.” During the late 18th century, it was becoming fashionable and entertaining for the upper class to emulate the dress of peasants and working classes.
While the working classes wore simple lederhosen for their functionality, the upper class and nobility began wearing them as fashion pieces. They added elaborate embroidery and decorations to differentiate themselves from the lower classes and advertise their social status. The embroidery usually signified which region the wearer was from and lederhosen became a source of regional pride. Often, the wealthier wearers wore deerskin lederhosen, which was softer and more comfortable than ones made from goat or sheepskin. As lederhosen became a part of traditional alpine dress for all classes, the working classes often owned multiple pairs for work and special occasions.
The Dirndl Follows Suit
As with lederhosen, only the peasant class, which included maids and servant girls, initially wore the dirndl attire during the 18th century. Made of durable wool, the dress and apron were functional and allowed women to work freely. The upper classes and nobility wore dirndls made of satin, silk, and other expensive fabrics. In addition to the dirndl’s fashion status, dirndls were more comfortable and better suited for noblewomen’s country vacation homes where they often spent their summer months.
As any fashion designer will tell you, clothing trends change over time. By the 19th century, the novelty of wearing peasant dress such as lederhosen was waning, especially among upper classes. Nobility no longer found it in vogue to emulate peasants and moved on to new style trends that included traditional trousers and pantaloons made of cotton and other comfortable cloth. Peasants continued to wear them since they served a functional purpose, but even that changed.
Denim Jeans Replace Lederhosen
Ironically, a Bavarian immigrant is partially responsible for the demise of lederhosen. A German named Levi Strauss emigrated to New York in 1851 to join his older brothers, who owned a dry goods store. Strauss followed the Gold Rush to California in 1853 and opened a dry goods store in San Francisco that sold sturdy denim cloth, among other things. One of his customers, a tailor named Jacob W. Davis, bought Strauss’ denim and made a pair of durable work pants for a customer.
Davis saw the value in making the new, sturdier pants, which had metal rivets reinforcing the pockets and flies, for miners and other manual laborers. He and Strauss patented the pants, became partners in 1871, and opened a factory. Blue jeans, as the pants became known, soon became the go-to work pants and eventually became popular in Germany. Younger Germans were no longer interested in wearing the traditional attire of their elders and lederhosen became even less popular.
Lederhosen Rise Again
Around the end of the 19th century, Bavarians (especially in and around Munich) began forming groups that focused on preserving their traditions and cultures — including clothing. One group of six men led by Joseph Vogel wore lederhosen into church in 1883, which created quite a scandal as short pants were not suitable church attire. Fortunately, Bavarian King Ludwig II favored the traditional attire and supported their efforts. Lederhosen became part of a celebratory outfit that honored Bavarian culture.
You can also partially thank Oktoberfest for lederhosen’s return to cultural status. The original Oktoberfest was held in 1812 as part of a marriage celebration between Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. In 1887, lederhosen and the dirndl were declared the official Munich Oktoberfest attire. Today, locals and visitors wear lederhosen and dirndls to Munich’s enormously popular Oktoberfest, as well as to German weddings, celebrations, and cultural celebrations around the world.