Oktoberfest “Black Forest” Dirndl

As a girl of strong Germanic heritage – and as a lover of vintage fashion – an old-fashioned ethnic outfit to celebrate Oktoberfest has long been on my to-make list, and is now, finally, a reality!  Here’s my year 1942 dirndl. Even though the pattern I used called for this to be a dress, I made two separates for ultimate mix-and-matchability, so I can wear each on its own in the future or change up my dirndl in the future. This is something I am so happy with…it tuned out every bit as wonderful as I imagined.  Prost!

I was inspired by the traditional late 30’s/40’s “Black Forest Maiden” when making this.  The “Black Forest” is a very ancient, forested, mountainous region in southwest Germany.  It was already named in Roman times.  The cultural dress and traditions of this region are likewise very old, and the rich dirndl customs associated with it have been around for the last several centuries.  

Dirndls are an established manner of local dressing, an organic means of freely expressing cultural identity, for Bavaria, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and more. Thus, I find it so sad that dirndls became twisted by Hitler before and during WWII. They were a mode of dressing used to suppress and subjugate women nationally in the late 30s and early 40s.  As a girl with very German roots I recognize that interpreting a dirndl via 1942 can painful. However, this is an outfit I made to honor a woman with a story I will never forget.

At a WWII reenactment two years ago, I met a wonderful, friendly, and knowledgeable man with a thick German accent. As we chatted, I seemed to bring to mind something for him by wearing my vintage garb, and he proceeded to tell me I reminded him of his mother. My vintage 1940s outfit was similar to the way she dressed when she moved to France with him after the war. You see, she was 11 or 12 when Hitler started his invasions, and the local Nazi Youth Movement chose her as the town’s “Black Forest Maiden” since she had the “perfect” body, hair and eye color as designated by their twisted idealism. Terrified and crying, she was forced to lead the town’s parades, forced to wear the traditional folkwear they chose, and be their “mascot” with her official photo. When I was shown that woman’s picture from back then, in her beautiful dirndl vest, with her stereotypical ‘Gretchen’ braids, I noticed a great sadness in her eyes despite that ‘perfect’ smile – her image is burned in my memory. And you think image crafting and body shaming is hardcore today…!

I had no idea before hearing his emotional maternal story that a “Black Forest Maiden” was so strongly imposed on women and young girls who happened to fit the “faultless” Aryan mold. It must’ve been like a living punishment!  We have been incessantly fed a need to change one’s own inherent individual beauty for ages, though not to this degree.  I have read that blond hair dye was extremely popular (and encouraged) back then for the brunettes, while posters and publications pressured a certain living ideal, too. Anyone can read and research about this topic all they want, but there is nothing like a first-hand account from those who lived through those times to get the real stories of the past.  Luckily, I can choose to wear what I want today, and be happy celebrating my heritage the way I choose, but making a 1940s dirndl reminds that was not always the case.

When Austria was annexed in 1938 the Nazi’s enforced a ban preventing Jews from wearing dirndls, lederhosen, or Germanic traditional garments.  Many Jews of Slovak and Alpine nationalities had been successful and prominent designers, textile printers, and clothing creators many decades before the Holocaust.  Austrian Jews were extraordinary researchers of history, architects, and all sorts of amazing careers, as well, but it is ironic they were prevented from wearing clothing of their own heritage that they had a big hand in popularizing and crafting.  Women only had received the right to vote twenty or less years beforehand, too!    All the advancements that women of central Europe had been fighting for during the 20 years of the Inter-War period (and they were many) were threatened by the Nazi Idea of the model German woman.

All of what I have said above in the last several paragraphs is why I did not too strongly adhere to the “Black Forest” ideal with my set as you see it worn to the public Oktoberfest.  American Oktoberfests that I have attended in my lifetime are not always culturally correct or properly respectful of their heritage.  To wear a paled down version of an authentic dirndl as I am makes me the oddball of the occasion.  Yet, I am still more traditionally correct than the popular “bar maid” version of a dirndl costume, with its off-the-shoulder under blouse, cleavage revealing bodice, and short skimpy skirt.  Keep in mind my Oktoberfest outfit is also a strictly 40’s interpretation, which because of the date to it (1942), would not have too strong of a Germanic influence due to both Hitler’s actions and because of where the Allied nations were at in the war.

However, at home I did accessorize my dirndl in a way that would make it truer to the Black Forest tradition.  I am wearing a trio of collar, apron, and earrings which are true vintage, with the traditional silver lasso necklace, and a full black skirt for a complete change of appearance.  My blouse is the design that came with my dirndl pattern, made by me out of a sheer white chiffon.  It is something very special for me to be able to respectfully embrace a tradition of my heritage through my own interpretation, adding my own memories and provenance to a garment whose history is frequently either painful or forgotten!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  all fabrics are authentic to a vintage dirndl of the times – cotton broadcloth for the skirt with a ribbed cotton velveteen for the vest exterior, interlined in an open weave, medium weight canvas cotton interfacing, lined in solid black basic broadcloth

PATTERN:  Simplicity #4230, year 1942, from my personal collection of patterns

NOTIONS:  I only wanted to use supplies that were on hand already, and all I absolutely needed to buy new was the front zipper!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  It took me about 20 hours to complete and was finished on October 13, 2018.

TOTAL COST:  As everything I used had been on hand in my stash for at least a few years (yay for whittling down my hoard of fabric), and (knowing me) I probably got it all on a good discounted price anyway, I’m counting this outfit as free!

I had the best surprise as I opened up the dirndl jumper pattern, the kind which don’t come that often (and I believe I have seen and opened up a lot of vintage patterns in my life).  This particular one is in top tier condition.  It was still factory folded inside, no discoloring, smell, or brittleness and the trailing floral embroidery transfers were miraculously as pristine as the day they were made – never used and still shiny and waxy, beaded up on the tissue paper strips.  I always see transfer papers either missing, used already, or the ink dry and crumbly.  Needless to say, I really have no intention of actually using them as iron-on transfers, but it is neat and rather tempting knowing they are there and fully usable!  Perhaps once my commitment to full scale embroidery is more guaranteed in the future, I might make a copy of these transfers and try the design, but I would have to start such a project two seasons ahead at my rate and I have enough going on in my life to convince me otherwise.

For the bodice ‘vest’, I chose a novelty ribbed velveteen – thick, sturdy, and lovely to touch. It was fully lined and fully interfaced with sew-in stiff cotton muslin so it would end up almost like a corset, or at least a very substantial jacket weight.  The top half of a dirndl is called a bodice, not a corset, even if it may have very distant origins to them. It is supposed to be a substantial weight to keep its own shape, be sturdy without boning, and not be a substitute to a bra or corset. They were meant to be long wearing enough to endure and be possibly passed down to the next generation if fancy enough! After all, though, lining a garment is always such a nice and easy way for both a professional finish and a clean way to finish all your edges and hide all your seams!  It was chilly the day of our town’s Oktoberfest, so my vest kept my entire middle so warm I needed no coat.

As I am a married woman, I have no obvious red trimming (meant for single ladies) and my vest is primarily black.  There is a separating front zipper, matching in black, wedged in the middle to close the front of my dirndl vest.  Happily it is not very noticeable at all.  A laced up front is more of the Bavarian-Alpine variety of dirndl, and a Black Forest version is ‘plainer’ than that, often having buttons down the front and/or applied embroidery. As zippers were the latest and greatest fashion edge in the late 30’s, I wanted this traditional-influenced dirndl to follow suit.  Besides, a simple closing accommodated the fancy trim I planned on using.

The braided trim is complex and dramatic, perfect for a dirndl where your haberdashery cannot be too fancy or your details too scrumptious.  It is a Simplicity brand roll that I had bought on deep discount years ago.  It is something so novelty that I had no clear idea of what to use it on at the time, but as something like this is hard to come by – and normally expensive – I had to have it.  I’m glad I did, because it was meant for this dirndl…the 4 feet on the roll was exactly the length needed to go completely around the front and neckline edge.  Even an inch less would have not worked.  It is a cotton rayon blend of a white satin soutache-style rope braided with multiple strands of twisted black rope which reminds me of what is on decorator’s tassels.  As much as I wanted a quick and easy way to attach the trim down, I put up with hand-stitching it down for a precise placement with threads unseen.  I am in amazement at how this special trim made my dirndl vest so easily go above basic. 

My skirt is self-drafted of a 40’s reproduction print.  The color is not as green as I would have liked, but neither is it solidly turquoise.  Whatever the tone, happily my skirt is very much a copy of the skirt and apron colors worn in the West German movie “The Black Forest Girl”, made in 1950.  The story for this movie is based on the operetta “Schwarzwaldmädel” by Leon Jessel, who died in the same year as my dirndl pattern – 1942. A married woman was allowed shades of green for her skirt besides black.

It’s merely your basic gathered skirt, and for a good amount of pouf I brought in just over twice my waist length into a very nice, 1 ½ inch wide, lightly interfaced waistband.  In order to use the whole of my fabric with minimal cutting, I hand-stitched down a 12 inch hem to shape some fullness into the skirt, weigh it down, and keep it opaque.  There is a true vintage metal zipper in the side for an old-fashioned touch.  It should definitely be a great basic wardrobe staple during the spring and summer worn on its own with a tee or blouse apart from this dirndl.  I hope to make another skirt like this one, using a completely different print and material, to see how that changes the overall feel of my Germanic outfit.

This is the family heirloom apron from the side of the family which came over from Germany.

An apron is a must with a dirndl!  The white apron I am wearing is a handcrafted fine cotton one that my mom had ordered from a vintage reproduction company, so it is not of my own making, but the details are just what I would want to pair with my outfit.  There is crocheted lace and both pintucks and ½ pleats for more texture and interest to the outfit.  The apron I had on for the Oktoberfest event is a very wearable new version that reminds me of the apron I would have preferred to wear (but wouldn’t dare take out) – my Great-Great Grandmother’s apron handmade apron from circa 1870-1890 (pictured at left).  This family history treasure was made while on a boat, immigrating to the United States, and the fine details are mind-blowing.  Just studying it is improving my sewing skills by prompting me to practice imitating such tiny, regular feather-stitching on other items.

I did intend on wearing the dirndl vest’s matching underblouse just like the cover shows, but I ran out of time to finish it completely for this weekend.  You can see the post of the blouse’s making here, where it is worn by itself with some 40’s style pants.  Instead, I wore a fine linen blouse already in my wardrobe, one that has lovely floral-and-vine shadow work along the neckline, visible above the sweetheart neckline of my dirndl vest if you look closely.  The earrings are vintage from my Grandmother (on my father’s side).

There is heavy German influence on all sides of my family, and around the last turn of the century they had immigrated over (before the First World War, when eight million German-Americans comprised this country’s largest non-English speaking group).  This was at a time when being a “Hyphenated American” was paramount to asking for the finger of suspicion to come to you.  Yet, during the First World War, when Ellis Island immigration was high, about 20 percent of all Americans who answered the call to arms were foreign born.  Quick assimilation was important to “Hyphenated Americans” for both their safety and because of their likelihood for a successful new start.

Even still, our families have not forgotten our past heritage over the last 100 plus years.  My dad has memories of going to Oktoberfest celebrations as a child in his little Lederhosen, and his Grandfather – who operated his own bakery for many years – always had stollen cake and coffee on hand to enjoy with him every Sunday after church.  My husband’s paternal side had originally settled in an immigrant city that has German still on the tombstones and street signs.  Conversely, our relatives did their part for America fighting against the Reich in both wars.  The German influence that still surrounds me in the Mid-Western United States where I live is all good stuff – stately, impressive churches, strong homes made to last, delicious and hearty food, creative micro-breweries, beautiful winery vineyards, and happy, down-to-earth, hard-working people.  I’m now asking myself why did I not make a dirndl earlier than now?!

2 thoughts on “Oktoberfest “Black Forest” Dirndl

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