Free From My Tower

I suspect that many of us can now empathize (or commiserate) to some small degree with the fairy tale girl Rapunzel, who was locked up in a tower for the whole of her young life.  Being kept from social situations, apart from friends and family, as well as seeing the same limited spaces all too frequently during the pandemic has been very trying for me…I can’t dare to imagine a 16 year solitude!  Thus, I am here portraying a Rapunzel liberated from her tower, barefoot and free amongst nature, wearing my interpretation of a Bavarian Edelweiss dirndl to honor the Germanic version of the fairy tale.  My hair may not be blonde, nor is it remotely long enough to be comparable Rapunzel’s tresses, yet I was really feeling the part here nevertheless.  Enjoy the fun vintage spin with cultural heritage that I wove into my dirndl for a Bavarian take on this popular character – yet another installment to my ongoing Disney inspired “Pandemic Princess” blog series

The classic “Rapunzel” is a fairy tale that Friedrich Schulz printed in 1790 in Kleine Romane (Little Novels), followed by the Brothers Grimm publishing it in 1812 as part of Children’s and Household Tales.  Tied to the witch of the story, Rapunzel’s name is given to her because of the German word for a salad vegetable.  Although the Grimm’s recounting of the fairy tale is the most prevalent version of the “Maiden in the Tower” in the western literature, the basic storyline has strong origins to French and Mediterranean tales rather than to Germanic oral folktales, as once believed.

However, the only version that I particularly enjoy is Disney’s “Tangled” from 2010. It’s a 3D animated film loosely based on the Rapunzel fairytale with an added, appealing twist – she’s born a princess with magical hair whose ‘rescue’ is tied to the character redemption of the handsome scoundrel Eugene, aka Flynn Rider. 

Do not be confused though, as I am posting this just before Halloween – it is not meant to be a costume!  I am of German ancestry myself, and esteem and appreciate wearing a garment which is intrinsic to the story of my heritage.  Cultural attire of any kind is NEVER a costume for misinterpretation or joking about.  I made this as a true dirndl, attempting remain authentic to its heritage while also being modern enough to be very wearable for me to enjoy outside of Oktoberfest or ethnic settings.  If you go by past standards, yes, I am channeling someone that I am not – an unmarried girl of the Alpine region – with my choices of color and style inspired by a commercial Disney retelling of an old German fairytale.  Yes, I am sadly missing and apron here, too…I normally do follow a more old-fashioned expression for this kind of clothing.  This is only a ‘costume’ for me in the older, sensible, “uncountable noun” term of the word – a set of clothing, just like anything else in my wardrobe, for expressing who I am in this time and place, not a characterization of another race or culture.

Dirndls of nowadays, however, are not as confined to older traditions that designate them to be a visual statement on your state and condition of life (I will address more on this topic further down in my post).  Today we have to freedom to wear what we want, how we want.  Nevertheless, cultural clothing like a sari, a kimono, a kilt, or a dirndl (for just a few examples), always needs to be worn with proper context, understanding, and respect.   I have sadly seen way too many ‘influencers’ on social media this month wearing a dirndl has a costume, especially for “Lord of the Rings” themed Hobbit parties.  History has many deep tales to tell and perspectives to teach, along with amazing people to hear about, so let’s open up to all those lessons by respecting garments that express cultural identity.  Is there a garment for you that signifies your ancestor’s’ heritage?

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a 100% cotton Alexander Henry fabric dated to 1999 (seen on the selvedge) in the “chloe” floral print, with solid color jacquard woven cotton for the contrast front and sleeves, a sheer matching colored poly chiffon for the ¾ length undersleeves, and fabric leftover from sewing this vintage hat went towards making the tiny tubing which is my front dirndl lacing

PATTERN:  Butterick #6352, a vintage inspired Gertie design

NOTIONS:  Lots of thread, lots of interfacing (for the entire bodice), one zipper, and a set of traditional dirndl hooks

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was sewn in about 20 hours and it was finished on October 7, 2020.

THE INSIDES:  cleanly bias bound edges

TOTAL COST:  practically nothing – this fabric was picked up at a second-hand thrift sale where fabric is sold for $1 per pound.  The 3 yard cut of this thick, substantial fabric was kind of hefty, so it was probably just a few dollars.  The rest of my supplies was all items on hand for longer than I remember or leftover from another project, so I’m counting that stuff as free!

I loved being able to start off this project with such a high end cotton with starting place tied to that of Disney and a date that reminds me of just how long “Tangled” was in the works before its completion. The concept of an animated film based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Rapunzel” originated from Disney supervising animator Glen Keane in 1996.  Keane pitched the idea in 2001 to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner who approved it, but requested the film to be computer-animated. 

My 1999 fabric hits right in between those preliminary dates for the film.  Alexander Henry is a premier textile design house, producing original cotton prints for product manufacturers and home sewists alike from their talented artists who hand-paint each design the line produces.  Their business is located in Burbank, California which is also the corporate headquarters for Walt Disney Studios!  We drove through Burbank on our way in to Los Angeles a few years back, and it was so nice, with great shopping opportunities!  I love weaving in little details and cool correlations to my outfits, but especially so when they all come together without even trying, such as for this dress.  It also happened to be the perfect purple-pink orchid tone for a Rapunzel frock!  It was such a soft, thick, and fabulously lovely cotton!  I love how serendipitous this project came together.

Now, knowing that Disney’s story base was the German version of Rapunzel, I looked beyond the artistic license of the animation to see that her dress was intrinsically a dirndl.  It was the laced front, the puffed sleeves, (faux) apron, and the neckline shaping that give it away for me.  This would make total sense, anyways.  Dirndls are an established manner of local dressing, an organic means of freely expressing cultural identity, for Bavaria, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and more.  They are not just for Oktoberfest.  “Fashion With Renée” relates that back in 1626, the Bavarian Prince, Maximilian I created a ‘dress code’ to show people’s rank in society. The law separated people into seven groups and noted that farmers (and the lower class workers) were not allowed to wear imported clothing…and thus the dirndl was adopted for women, just as the lederhosen was for men.  The Bavarian Alps are located in what is now Germany (since 1945) near the southern border of the federal state of Bavaria and continue across the border into Austria.  

“Girl Sewing”, 1869 by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This is a great example of the romanticism of the peasant life that brought the dirndl to the consciousness of the aristocratic class. Our picture is of an original oil painting, from a 2019 exhibit at the Memphis, Tennessee Brooks Museum of Art.

Beginning in the early 1800s, aristocrats, upper classes, and even artists romanticized rural living of the Alpine regions.  That eminent Habsburg the Archduke Johann of Styria (briefly Regent of Germany in 1848 to ’49) sported traditional Tyrolean styles in his coats and jackets, and his famous nephew, the Emperor Franz Joseph I, was a great hunter of the Alps who also was an aficionado appreciative of the rustic designs of the region.  In 1900, 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”, transforming them into a fashion trend.  The Wallach name was renowned for their famous custom printed folk textile prints, even offering fashion shows of Bavarian and Austrian wear in their cloth.  (See this excellent blog post here for more info on the Wallach history.)  Thus the dirndl (and lederhosen, too) became both more universally adopted and overall more vibrantly fashionable.  Much of this energy and growth was snuffed around the time WWII began, only for Germanic clothing to find a comeback for the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich.   Today in 2021 they are having a moment in popularity again with an exhibit “’Dirndl – Tradition Goes Fashion” at the Mamorschloessl palace (former summer residence of Emperor Franz Joseph I) in Bad Ischl, Upper Austria.

Vivienne Westwood dirndl on display at the “Tradition Goes Fashion” exhibit in Bad Ischl, Austria, 2021.

On a local level, in the 150 years before the 1940s, many new, organic traditions were evolving around the dirndl to make the wearer’s marital, economic, and regional status be something visibly recognizable by the every detail of one’s manner of dress. For example, an apron knot tied on a woman’s left hip meant she was unmarried, the right meant married, while the center back meant she was either engaged or otherwise working at her job (so leave her alone).  Married women were more restricted in colors to choose from while single girls were permitted the flowered hair crowns and the prettiest variety of tones.  These are just a few of the many, interesting, and beautiful traditions surrounding an old-style wearing of the dirndl.

The rich pastel colors that Rapunzel is wearing properly designates her as a young unmarried woman while the laced bodice with the dirndl hooks ties it to the Alpine region, which would be the perfect place to hide the tower the witch uses to imprison her.  However, I am so excited to have thought out not just her dress but about the main symbol associated to Disney’s Rapunzel – the golden sun of her parents’ Kingdom of Corona.  I see it as reminiscent of an edelweiss flower, also called the “mountain star”.  

The Edelweiss is such a long-standing Alpine symbol – it’s still on everything from Swiss airline planes, beer cans, club logos, coats-of-arms, money, and certain uniforms for army officials and mountain troops in Germany and the Bavarian Alps.  Again, it was the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I who popularized a renewed passion for the edelweiss flower in 1856, when he made a point of gifting the flowers, picked during a hike in the mountains, to his beloved wife the Empress “Sissi”.  As I wanted a simple outfit without jewelry, the most natural (and practical) way to add this Alpine symbol was to order a set of edelweiss flower dirndl hooks, ordered direct from a shop in Bavaria that sells tract supplies (link here).  The pattern called for loops to be sewn in anyway, so decorative hooks for the front tie was a prettier, more interesting, more authentic to have a laced-front dirndl.  The way they show the long and short petals radiating out in a staggered, wavy fashion perfectly embodies Disney’s Rapunzel Corona sun symbol while still being specifically Bavarian.  I love how beautiful the hooks are on my dress. They bring out the color of the golden flowers in the print and shimmered in the sunset glow for this post’s pictures.  

Lacing is not necessary to the front of a dirndl, but one of the many decorative elements that are optional yet also traditional.  Because it is not a corset, a dirndl normally has a closure on its own separate from embellishments – here the dress has a center closing zipper.  Lacing is a traditional Bavarian feature, but dirndls often have a front buttoning closure instead, especially ones from Germany (such as a “Black Forest” dirndl, which I have posted more about here).  A dirndl has a stable, substantial bodice, which is why it was fully interfaced just as the Gertie pattern instructs.  Most Gertie patterns call for boning, which I thought would have been overkill here, so I did leave it off for my version.  Dirndls have a close fit with little excess wearing ease, which was how the pattern fit anyway after choosing my matching size according to the given chart.  It is not confining, though, but fits me perfectly because of the pattern’s excellent curving drafted into the princess seams. 

The way a dirndl’s front bodice panels (in between the lacing) are often in a different fabric, or at least highly decorative either by adding embroidery or lace, is reminiscent to their old and hazy origins to a corset.  Either way, for my center panels I used a heavy cotton jacquard that alternates stripes with a tiny floral.  It was just a remnant on hand, and it happily matched the Alexander Henry print I used for the rest of the dress.  Disney’s Rapunzel had striped sleeves so I was originally led to choosing this contrast fabric from my stash so I could have a similar look on my dress, but then carried it over into the front panels to incorporate it into the dress, just as many dirndls do.  The open U-neckline is another classic dirndl feature, and such a pretty one for framing the face.  I see dipped U-necklines pop up a lot in the late 1940s (see this ’49 one I made back when I started blogging) into the 1950s, and Gertie herself says this pattern of hers is strongly 50’s inspired, after all.   

Whether or not the skirt is the easy part depends on how much detail and what level of quality you want to achieve. Some dirndls have tiny, even pleats going completely around the waist, and the high end ones are sometimes smocked, but many are merely gathered into a waistband – the simplest method by far. I chose that last mentioned option, using fabric left (about two yards) from cutting out the rest of dress, making sure to have the selvedge be the hemline to save myself some trouble!

My chiffon undersleeves are a custom addition.  Not only do they bring my dirndl closer to a Rapunzel look alike, but they help my dress look polished.  They add a nice touch of color and a differing texture that helps make it more interesting, in my opinion.  They help my puffed short sleeves stay controlled, most importantly.  I did wear my dress for a short time without the undersleeves, and the puff sleeves crept up my arm and ended up looking weird.  I just used a very basic, skinny fitting, long sleeve pattern piece from another pattern (don’t remember which one), sewed it in under the puffed sleeves, and then shortened to the length I wanted.  The two sleeves are tacked together around the cuff of the outer puff sleeves and the hem kept simple by a bead of Fray-Check liquid.

It was so awesome how this Gertie pattern has so many authentic dirndl details under the guise of being a cute, vintage style dress.  This is a great pattern I highly recommend.  Granted, it is a mark of 20th century modernization for a dirndl to suddenly be a one-piece garment, instead of separates – skirt, dirndl (under) blouse, dirndl (vest) blouse, apron, and an optional collar.  Just like any other culture, traditional clothes tend to evolve along with the changing needs and the present history of the culture they are a part of, yet traditional elements still remain.  In the decades between WWI and WWII, the groundbreaking research of Austrian Jewish anthropologist Eugenie Goldstern showed how the Alpine culture has not been static, or overly set in its ways, but has adapted over the centuries since ancient times when King Charlemange was hunting in the region and was impressed by the sturdy, warm Loden cloth of the region.   

Many of the cultural stereotypes for Germany originate from the Bavarian Alps, yet ironically it only composes less than 10% of Germany’s total area.  All too often stereotypes have the facts warped or screwed up to the point that the actualities are understood in a distorted way.  Popular understanding of history doesn’t automatically equal truth.  I love to uncover facts that get overlooked or forgotten for a clearer picture.  I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the history, lore, and traditions surrounding a dirndl – if you fancy more, read my last post on the other German fairytale princess Snow White, as well as my post on my “Black Forest” dirndl interpretation.  Maybe the next time you hear of Rapunzel, or visit an Oktoberfest, I will have given you a different, deeper outlook!  As you can tell, I became totally invested in taking on this particular fairytale through the lens of my heritage.  I do admire a girl who can grow her hair that long.  I’m pretending I’m the Rapunzel who got her hair cut after being free from her isolation, ha!