A Tyrolean affair of tradition

Since part of my origins derive from Tyrol in Austria, I have recently been researching a lot about the alpine region with special regard on its traditional costumes and fashion history. 

The costumes I looked at provide a glimpse into the past, while simultaneously demonstrating the rich craftsmanship in tailoring that continues to exist today in Tyrol and other regions.

Indeed, Trachten have existed since the fifteenth century. They are proof that clothing has never been just a piece of garment but also a means of communication and expression of style as well as origin. The costumes were a way to read a person’s profession, status and wealth. Depending on the costume, it was even possible to identify what village a person belonged to, their economic status and what their social position was. In some regions, for instance, women showed off their wealth with the number of skirts they wore. Some places up to fifteen skirts were layered.

It was not so much about vanity as it was about self-promotion. A carpenter, for example, wanted everyone to immediately recognize his profession so he would not miss potential costumers. A young woman who was looking to marry did well to indicate her intentions, as marriage had very little to do with romance at the time. Therefore the costume communicated one’s personal relationship status.

A successive form of non-verbal communication through dressing is being emphasized in social media today. Through various platforms, such as Instagram, people increasingly communicate through images, staging themselves through fashion and garments. If and how people wear designer clothing provides information on the value one attributes to status.

In contrast the Trachten expressed rurality and a certain order that was specified by powerful religious and political heads. In the Middle Ages, decrees dictated which garments and fabrics would be worn by different social classes. Farmers and people of the lower classes, for example, were only allowed to wear a wide frock coat and a smock combined with long pants and as hat. On Sundays and holidays they had to wear grey or brown-coloured garments. Peasants wore no other colours at that time except for blue.

At that time, two types of traditional country dresses developed: work clothes and Sunday or festive dress. I also remember how my grandmother keeps telling me about how she saved the most special clothing pieces for Sundays, which means for celebrating the holy mass in town.

But besides colours and days to wear them, the national costume in Tyrol and many other German-speaking countries was and still is the “Tracht”.

Originally, the word “Tracht” derives from the Middle High German word “Dracht” in the sense of “what is carried/worn/borne”, which is connected to the verb “tragen”, meaning “to carry/wear/bear”. So “Tracht” can refer to the clothes, which are worn, but also simply to a load, which is carried (still used by beekeepers, referring to the load of honey carried in by the bees). Since every single town has its own Trachten design, I would like to show you a few examples and how to wear single items today in a stylish yet traditional way.

A traditional Tracht cloth is made with elaborate workmanship and luxurious as well as natural fabrics such as wool, linen, silk, mother of pearl are being used, decorated with embroidery, lace and hand-woven materials.

Some of today’s still existing Trachten are reminiscent of haute couture. One hardly expects such elaborate craftsmanship in local sewing shops. After all, most people believe there is no great fashion tradition in German- speaking areas, when in fact clothing is closely interwoven with the country’s history.

The costumes have certainly also undergone changes. Fashion trends from urban areas were integrated into traditional costumes by time. Trachten became more colourful in northern German areas when Portuguese merchants brought jewellery from overseas.

My story about this traditional Tyrolean affair is going to continue soon including a report on how to wear traditional Tyrolean costumes today, inspired by some of the greatest modern designers and Hollywood style icons. 

Image source:  Gregor Hohenberg (Traditional Couture, Folkloric Heritage Cost., 2015)

Tyrol, Austria

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