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CULTURE

Austria’s dirndl: a dress for past and present

The humble Alpine "dirndl" dress, with its distinctive white blouse, full skirt and apron, has won new fans among Austrians and foreign fashionistas alike in recent years.

Austria's dirndl: a dress for past and present
A dirndl dress with the stitched lettering "Never let the fascists have the DIRNDL" is on display at the exhibition "Dirndl - Tradition goes fashion" at the Mamorschloessl palace in Bad Ischl, Upper Austria, on June 24th, 2021. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP) 

Its folksy appeal has now made the historic dirndl and other traditional outfits a key part of Austria’s clothing industry, about 70 percent of which is exported, according to the Chamber of Commerce.

Dirndl dresses are on display at new exhibition “Dirndl – Tradition goes fashion” at the Mamorschloessl palace in Bad Ischl, Upper Austria, on June 24th, 2021. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP) 

Even British style icon Vivienne Westwood, better known for her provocative punk designs, has been charmed by the dirndl, which also features a close-fitting bodice.

Now the enduring garment is the star of a new exhibition which traces its journey through the years from the countryside to the catwalk.

The show is being held in the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl, the former summer residence of Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Elisabeth, known popularly as Sissi.

It lies in the Salzkammergut, a spectacular region of mountains and lakes which was one of the original homes of the dirndl, along with neighbouring Tyrol and Bavaria in southern Germany.

Thekla Weissengruber, the exhibition’s curator, says the dirndl “is to Austria what the kilt is to Scotland or the kimono is to Japan”.

Thekla Weissengruber, curator of the exhibition “Dirndl – Tradition goes fashion” on display at the Mamorschloessl palace in Bad Ischl, Upper Austria, is pictured on June 24th, 2021. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP) 
Prestigious patrons
It was women living on the land who initially adopted the cheap, practical dress, whose name derives from a dialect term that can also mean “girl”.

But by the end of the 19th century, it was also being worn by women at the imperial court when they flocked to the countryside in summer.

“Everything was very corseted in Vienna,” Weissengruber told AFP.

“On holiday they were able to free themselves, with these lighter, brighter styles,” she added.

Dirndl dresses on display at the new exhibition. The Alpine ‘dirndl’ dress with its distinctive white blouse, round skirt and apron has won new fans among Austrians and foreign fashionistas alike in recent years . (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP) 

Hosted in the Marmorschloessl, the “cottage” given to Sissi by her husband, the exhibition shows how the dirndl has evolved through some 50 examples.

The early, no-frills versions quickly give way to more elaborate outfits fit for those seeking an audience at the imperial villa.

Angelika Schauer runs a family dirndl-makers in Bad Ischl that traces its history back to 1895.

She recalls that her grandfather counted visitors at court among his clients.

“When he was taking measurements he was under close watch” from the bodyguards who came with the well-heeled clients, she said.

“He had to refrain from making certain movements”.

An employee settles the fabrics in the Schauer Atelier dirndl shop in Bad Ischl, Upper Austria on June 24, 2021. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)
‘No more ugliness’
During the Nazi period, while women were encouraged to wear similar traditional dress, the word “dirndl” itself was banned, the regime finding it too redolent of the “Jewish-run” clothing industry.

But the dirndl never disappeared, with the patrons of the prestigious Salzburg Festival having sported it from the 1920s onwards.

Abroad it was popularised by “White Horse Inn”, a musical set in the Salzkammergut that reached Broadway in 1936.

It also had a fan in screen icon Marlene Dietrich, according to Weissengruber.

Along with other traditional Austrian clothing, the dirndl has experienced a revival in recent years, especially at beer festivals.

Guests wearing dirndl dreses sit at the Zauner coffee house in Bad Ischl, Upper Austria on June 24th, 2021. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP) 

Women today “wear the dirndl at any occasion”, said Schauer, with men donning the famous “lederhosen” leather breeches.

Despite often cheaper dirndl being produced in Asia, Schauer’s husband Johannes Topizopoulos says that many dirndl fans prefer to buy local, especially in an age where people want long-lasting, environmentally sustainable clothing.

“The fact that it’s hard-wearing fits in with the times very well,” he said.

High-end versions are certainly a pricey investment: a made-to-measure dirndl can cost between 650 and 1,000 euros ($767 and $1,180), not to mention the versions turned out by fashion houses like Westwood’s.

But, as the exhibition proudly cites the designer as having said during one visit to Austria, “if every woman wore a dirndl, there would be no more ugliness in the world”.

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CULTURE

Austria’s empress: These are latest TV shows and movies about Sissi

A new movie and two TV shows are set to reignite the fascination with Austrian Empress Elisabeth, popularly known as Sissi.

Austria's empress: These are latest TV shows and movies about Sissi

She was the Princess Diana of the 19th  century. An impossibly glamorous Austro-Hungarian empress whose star-crossed  love life and tragic end entranced the public.

Now a movie and two new series — including one being made for Netflix — are set to reignite the fascination with Empress Elisabeth, who was popularly known as “Sisi”.

The film, “Corsage”, premieres at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday while the series, “Sisi” — which covers her early life and turbulent marriage to Emperor Franz-Joseph — is streaming in Germany on RTL+ and is broadcasted in Austria on ORF.

READ ALSO: Austria’s ‘original influencer’: Ten weird facts about the Austrian Royal Family and Empress Sissi

It has already raised eyebrows there with its frank depiction of the young empress’ sexuality while garnering favourable reviews from critics.

The series’ Swiss-American star Dominique Devenport told AFP that part of the upsurge in interest in Sisi is a desire “to find more female narratives”.

A portrait of Princess Sissi displayed in her Imperial Apartments in Venice.(Photo by VINCENZO PINTO / AFP

She may have been one of the most famous women of the 19th century, but Devenport said Sisi’s life was “full of extremes, full of pain”.

Married to Franz-Joseph when she was just 16, Sisi chafed against the rituals and strictures of life at the stiff and stuffy Habsburg court.

Devenport said the questions she asks of herself in the series are ones many young people today can relate to: “How can I stay myself; what decisions do I make, how do I keep up with what is expected from me?”

READ ALSO: Austria’s dirndl: a dress for past and present

The rival Netflix series, “The Empress”, is still in production, with release slated for later this year.

A royal star 

Historian Martina Winkelhofer said Sisi was “one of the first very famous women in Europe”.

“You have to consider that she came into Austrian history at the beginning of mass media,” she said.

The inscription on the monument to Empress Elisabeth of Austria, popularly known as “Sissi” in the Volksgarten (People’s Garden) in Vienna. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

The advent of photography turbocharged her fame — “suddenly you had the wife of an emperor who you could really see.”

With the current thirst for stories with strong female characters, it was no surprise that Sisi’s story would be revisited, Winkelhofer argued.

Sisi was also obsessed with her own image, and her figure. In the elegant 19th century Hermes Villa on the outskirts of Vienna where the empress spent some of her later years, curator Michaela Lindinger pointed to the exercise equipment which Sisi used in an effort “to keep young really until her last day”.

READ ALSO: WW1 centenary: Austria and Hungary stand apart on ‘lost grandeur’ of the past

Vicky Krieps, the acclaimed Luxembourg-born actress who made her breakthrough opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in “Phantom Thread”, plays this later Sisi in “Corsage”, withdrawing from her husband and from life at court.

In Sisi’s bedroom, a gloomy statue entitled “Melancholia” is a sign of the sadness that overcame her after the suicide of her son and heir to the throne, Crown Prince Rudolf, in 1889.

Just under 10 years later, she herself died at the age of 60, assassinated by an Italian anarchist.

Enduring fairy tale

Traditionally, however, it has been the fairy tale aspect of Sisi’s life that has drawn attention and made sites like Vienna’s Schoenbrunn Palace among Austria’s most popular attractions.

Sisi has become a representation of Habsburg glamour far beyond Austria’s borders, and is a particular cult figure in China.

Picture taken on January 21, 2022 shows the original bedroom of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, popularly known as “Sissi”, in the exhibition in the Hermes Villa in Tiergarten in Vienna where the empress spent some of her later years. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Indeed, Andreas Gutzeit, the showrunner of the series “Sisi”, said he got the idea to revisit the story after watching the trilogy of 1950s films in which the empress was portrayed by Vienna-born actress Romy Schneider, whose life was also a high-octane mix of glamour and tragedy.

READ ALSO: Here are over 20 things you can do in Vienna for free

Gutzeit said the RTL+ series has already been sold to several countries in eastern Europe and as far afield as Brazil.

The many different facets of the empress’ life mean that “in each period, you have your own Sisi”, insisted historian Winkelhofer.

Over the ages her image has moved from a focus on her physical beauty to her use of charm, to more modern depictions of her as a more assertive and empowered proto-feminist figure.

“You can discover a new woman in each lifetime,” Winkelhofer said.

Where to watch?

  • Sisi, a TV show, is streaming in Germany on RTL+ and is broadcasted in Austria on ORF.
  • The Empress, a Netflix show, will stream later this year in the platform.
  • Corsage, the movie by Marie Kreutzer starring Vicky Krieps, is set to hit the cinemas this summer after its Cannes premiere.
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