There is a multitude of different, typically local, German traditional costumes, in German referred to as “Tracht” 1. While there are different kinds of costumes, used to express different kinds of information on the guild, profession, social rank and religion of its respective wearer, in this review, focus is set on the folk costumes, typically worn by farmers and workers in rural areas of the country (Haegg, 1996).
As Germany is, by the standards of the 19th century, when folk costumes where flourishing, a large country, a vast number of different costumes had developed in different areas; the areas in some parts of the country being as small as one village. As it is not practical to display every single different costume on a map, different areas where costumes resemble in cut and colour are marked in Figure 1. Most of the costumes summarized in this map show similar elements, especially women’s costumes. The costumes usually consist or an underdress, blouses, low hem skirts or dresses and some form of head cover (Haegg, 1996; Miehe, 2003; Meschgang, Balke, 1984; Krawc-Schneider, Balke, 1983), see Figure 1.
Typical for costumes from communities within the modern German borders is the extensive and spacious headwear worn especially by women. Regardless of the region within Germany, headscarves, hats, caps and bands were used to tie up hair, please aesthetically and display attributes like rank, social standing, marital status and profession. While headwear was popular, the type, shape, size, colour and variability of headwear differed greatly, as displayed in Figure 2. While in southern Germany, headwear tended to be less prominent and tied in neatly with the rest of the costume, especially middle German headwear, see Figure 2. b) and c), tended to be very spacious and the centre piece of costumes (Appl, Wax, 2016; Laturell, 1998).
Men’s costumes in Germany are not as intricate as women’s costumes. Men’s costumes tended to go with fashion, be less complex and were rarely used to transfer information about e.g. marital status. The most famous and still very prominent men’s costume is that worn in Munich and the surrounding area. Lederhosen, engl. Leather pants, stocking, leather shoes, shirt, vest and jacket are renowned and usually associated with the Munich Oktoberfest. The listed components however, occur in a majority of German men’s costumes, however in different cuts, styles and colours (Laturell, 1998; https://www.spurwechsel-muenchen.de/muenchner-tracht/).
As men’s costumes are not as intricate, culturally important and except for certain cases poorly preserved, focus is set on women’s costumes.
As it would be excessive and repetitive to analyse every German regional costume in depth, one costume is selected, the Sorbian costume, and the features and cultural and social background of the costumes as well as their characteristics are explained.
To expound further on German folk costumes, the Sorbian costume is chosen to highlight elements, parts and use of one kind of costume. The Sorbs are a Slavic minority, mostly living in Lusatia in the east of Germany. The Sorbs alone, living in an area that is 600km2 in size, see Figure 4, have seven different major costume groups (Miehe, 2003):
The costumes are worn depending on area of origin and religion of the wearer.
Each group of costumes typically contains a number of local or even village-specific costumes. Further, in each area or village, there is different costumes for different days of the week, tasks and occasions, driving the number of costumes to discuss and examine, only in Lusatia, into the hundreds. The further discussion is going to focus on areas, where costumes are till worn habitually and by younger generations, namely Catholics around Bautzen, Kamenz and Hoyerswerda (Miehe, 2003; Meschgang, Balke, 1984). The other Sorbian costumes are typically worn for special occasions and by the elderly, less so on a daily basis or for everyday activities (Miehe, 2003; Meschgang, Balke, 1984).
The Catholic Sorbian population is not defined by origin within Lausatia, but by confession. People would get together for pilgrimages, services, weddings and funerals. Exchange, conversation and cultivating relationships would take place at the events, especially when members of the community are from different villages or areas within Lausatia. Still, there is a deep divide between members of different origins, referring to each other as Prussians, Saxons etc. (Miehe, 2003; https://www.tourismus-sorben.com/katholische-tracht.html – Überprüfungsdatum 2022-10-13).
The Catholic community was quite isolated towards members of other communities and confessions. Marriages with Atheist or Protestant Sorbian neighbours, e.g. in Hoyerswerda, were frowned up and barely realisable until the end of World War II. After World War II, due to social changes introduced by refugees and the Socialist rule, ties between different confessions strengthened. While cemeteries are still separated, weddings, schooling and everyday manner are now interconfessional (Meshgang, Balke, 1984; https://www.tourismus-sorben.com/katholische-tracht.html – Überprüfungsdatum 2022-10-13).
Due to hundreds of years of isolation, the Catholic costume is quite distinct and peculiar in Lausatia, see Figure 5. Compared to other Lausatian costumes, the colours and patterns are darker and less striking, the cuts are less revealing and less festive and the overall impression is more restrained. This can be attributed to the Catholic way of life and values, which are less bright and excessive than the Lausatian.
Elements of every variation (occasion and social status of the wearer) are a shirt, petticoat, a longskirt, a bodice, apron, nostrum, a pjelz (short, tight jacket) a jacket and headwear (Meschgang, Balke, 1984; https://www.tourismus-sorben.com/katholische-tracht.html – Überprüfungsdatum 2022-10-13).
The Catholic costumes is characterised by long jackets, which are worn over ankle-length skirts. The style, cut and features of both the skirt as well as the jackets have changed over the centuries, but both elements remain a staple in contemporary costumes (Miehe, 2003, https://www.tourismus-sorben.com/katholische-tracht.html – Überprüfungsdatum 2022-10-13).
Since the 1920s, short-sleeved jackets and blouses have gradually been established as a fitting substitute for long-sleeved jackets. Short-sleeves were, in the beginning, only established in work and everyday costumes. Sleeve lengths, as well as changes in cuts and fabrics, are usually first adapted in work costumes. Work costumes, as well as everyday costumes worn for errands wear down significantly faster than church or wedding costumes. As the wear and tear is to be remedied, adjustments are made and tested. If the adjustment is deemed to be practical and pleasing, it can later also be adapted to finer costumes. As, e.g., the finest church costumes are exclusively worn inside the church and carefully protected from dirt and tear, fine costumes can last years and decades, and in some cases be passed down over generations. Thus, changes to finer costumes happen a lot more slowly than with items worn more regularly, and finer costumes tend to be more traditional regarding cut and material (Miehe, 2003; https://www.tourismus-sorben.com/katholische-tracht.html – Überprüfungsdatum 2022-10-13).
A similar feature which changed over time was the double button bar and high neck line on jackets worn to church, see Figure 6. This fashion is less based in aesthetics than in faith and catholic values. Both, the double button bar and high neckline and collars proved to be impractical over time, especially in the hot and dry summers in this area. Over time, the double button bar was simplified to a single button bar worn a little off the centre, and the collars and necklines dropped with fashion, see Figure 67. (Miehe, 2003).
The Catholic Sorbians in Lausatia were spread over a relatively large territory, not easily accessible by foot, see Figure 8. Before carriages and cars were typically available to the rural population, exchange between Catholic Sorbians from different villages was rare and far between. Thus, changes in costumes, fashion and customs first happened locally before being passed on to other members in the community. The changes described above happened over the course of decades (Miehe, 2003; Krawc-Schneider, Balke, 1983, https://www.tourismus-sorben.com/katholische-tracht.html – Überprüfungsdatum 2022-10-13).
A staple in all Sorbian costumes is the unique headwear. As mentioned prior, the Catholic headwear is a lot smaller and less bright and colourful than that of other Sorbian groups. There are three different types of headwear for Catholic Sorbian women: a cap, a headband, a headscarf and the grief cap. The ordinarily visible type of headwear, typical for Catholic Sorbians, is a long black, ~25cm wide headband tied around the head, see Figure 9 (Miehe, 2003; Meshgang, Balke, 1984, https://www.tourismus-sorben.com/katholische-tracht.html – Überprüfungsdatum 2022-10-13).
These black headbands would usually be worn with the church costumes, for special occasions and with finer costumes. Depending on the occasion and the rest of the costume, the band is either fixed with pins or tied in increasingly complex bows (Miehe, 2003).
Worn mostly for work, at home or in very informal settings is a headscarf. These scarfs can be of different materials, colours and patterns. As these are parts of the costume that are worn daily, they tend to wear down fairly quickly and are replaced going with contemporary fashion and trend. Headscarves are also an item which can be personalised very well, as it is not as restrained in design and style as other aspects of the costume. Especially in winters or working in a field, the fabric protects the wearer from cold, dirt and hay cuts (Miehe, 2003).
Headscarfs used to be worn in most communities across Europe for warmth, protection and other practical reasons. The most famous public figure holding on to the fashion in the 21th century was Her Majesty, the late Queen Elizabeth II of England and the Commonwealth (https://www.standard.co.uk/insider/queen-elizabeth-ii-headscarves-fashion-a4380806.html – Überprüfungsdatum 2022-10-14).
The cap displayed in Figure 10 b) is typically worn underneath the headband to give shape and support to the tied band. In less official capacities, not warranting a headband but also not suiting the headscarf, the cap was worn on its own. Examples of this are light housework, welcoming family and similar unofficial occasions (Meshgang, Balke, 1984).
The last type of headwear is the white sheet-like cloth that is draped over head and shoulders. There is two types of these cloths: the church cloth and the grief cloth. The church cloth is a simple embroidered white cloth that is worn around head and shoulders. The cloth shown in Figure 10 c) is a grief cloth. The grief cloth is a plain white, heavily strengthened and stiffened white sheet that is worn for processions and on several catholic holidays. While both white cloths used to be worn on a regular basis up until the 1950s, since the 1960s first the church cloth and then the grief cloth slowly phased out. Over the course of the last decade, the prominent, spacious white cloths were replaced by more subtle bows, scarfs and other headwear. Currently, only a small number of elder women are still holding no to the tradition of wearing white headwear for religious or processional occasions (Miehe, 2003; Meshgang, Balke, 1984).
In general, it can be said that a multitude of Sorbian cultural aspects, like costumes and customs, heavily suffered after WW2. While schools still teach the Sorbian language, younger generations practice the culture less and less in their everyday life. Great efforts are undertaken to preserve and protect the practicing Sorbian minority in Lausatia. Preserving especially the intricate and complex costumes of the different groups is a concern that members of the community are heavily invested in.
The population recognised German folklore again around 1900. The bourgeois youth movement rediscovered the traditional rural dances. These dances were cultivated by South German folklore and costume groups and are thus one reason why they can still be used for folklore research. Beginning shortly before the First World War, the preservation of the dances began. Various dance movements were systematically collected and also described. The challenge here was to combine the orally transmitted information with the written ones (Oetke, Herbert, „Der deutsche Volkstanz“).
Since December 2015, the folk dance movement as a cultural form has been part of the nationwide register of intangible cultural heritage (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkstanz#T%C3%A4nze_im_deutschsprachigen_Raum).
Through the analysis of folklore dances, development about social structures can be undertaken via inferences about them. Typically, region by region is selected for analysis. Rudof Voß, Albert Czerwinski, Frank Magnus Böhme and Herbert Oetke are among the authors who have studied folk dance. A common problem in the study of German folk dance is that information is not collected in one place. Information on dances can be found in various libraries or is privately owned. The book “Der deutsche Volkstanz” summarized different folklore books and refers to them to give a good overview and historical eingliederung (Oetke, Herbert, „Der deutsche Volkstanz“).
Today, still folklore dances are danced in specialized groups. In university folklore dance ensembles, folklore dance festivals or regional events the cultural heritage of folklore dancing is conducted and preserved.
Typical folklore dances are circle, row and chain dances. Similar to these dance forms are also the hoop and weapon dances, which differ only in the requisit and their function. Later, community dances have also been developed. They contain a higher degree of dance figures. In this respect, the couple dances are more characterised by improvisation. Other important dances are the women's and men's dances and dances for special occasions such as a wedding (Oetke, Herbert, „Der deutsche Volkstanz“).
On of the oldest known German folk dance is the "Kreistanz" (circle dance). Many dances are danced in a circle. Dances that are danced in summer or as a harvest dance, but also in the so-called ballad dances. As early as 1012, the Brothers Grimm wrote in their fairy tale "Die Bauern zu Kohlbeck" how 18 women and men danced a round dance in a churchyard (Oetke, Herbert, „Der deutsche Volkstanz“, https://ihna.de/repertoire/tanzgeschichtlicher-hintergrund/).
In general, dance history can be divided into different stages. First, dances emerged from a primitive community. They are mostly religious and were danced at festivities such as harvest, hunting, solstice, birth, wedding or death. Despite being forbidden by the church, these dances were still practised until the 18th century, especially by the peasants.
From the 10th century onwards, the dances of the original community developed into dances that were bound to customs and traditions. Over time, however, the peasant customs and traditions declined and industrialisation in Germany intensified that these dances lost their connection to the customs.
In the next period, the dances gained more and more of a sociable character even without the awareness of their former meaning. For this reason, the folk dance movement, which emerged primarily from the youth movement, especially cultivated the sociable dances. These dances are also called "youth dances". These are also the dances that are mainly danced in traditional costume groups, folk dance clubs and schools to this day. From the GDR onwards, a new development is to be noted. Traditional folk dances are further developed from traditional traditions and transformed into artistic, dance-like works of art. This can be called the stage of choreographed stage dances (https://ihna.de/repertoire/tanzgeschichtlicher-hintergrund/).