Fashion

The Traditional Costumes of Peasant Women in Germany and Alsace

Traditional costumes have virtually disappeared, but until the 1950s, this kind of attire was very common across Europe. From the color and cut you could conclude whether a woman was married, how old she was, which family she came from, and how wealthy...

Eric Schütt

Marie Meier, Schaumburg

Traditional costumes have virtually disappeared from our daily lives, but until the 1950s, this kind of attire was very common across Europe. The traditional costumes served as outfits for everyday use as well as special occasions. They were durable, and hence economical, but were also a status symbol in society. From the color and cut you could conclude whether a woman was married, how old she was, which family she came from, and how wealthy they were.

In the 1930s, Europeans' relationship with the traditional costumes changed. Slowly, women started to wear “city clothes”—initially against the will of their rural communities. By the 50s and 60s, women wearing traditional clothes had started to become outsiders. Most people considered them backwards and outdated, but their love for dressing in fancy, traditional garbs also displayed their individuality and confidence.

Nowadays you can still see women wearing traditional clothes (or cheap replications thereof). Especially during Oktoberfest in Bavaria, when women fill the beer tents, cramming their breasts into sexualized versions of the dirndl, a Bavarian traditional costume for women. Sadly, those dress-up moments are just a not-too-subtle reminder that people these days care more about beer and making out with strangers than tradition.

In 2008, Eric Schütt started looking for women who still wear traditional clothes for his photography project called Burenkleider: Burska Drasta, or Traditional Costumes of Peasant Women in Germany and Alsace. The women in these photos are never seen without their traditional costumes. They wear their costumes in the house and outside. In many cases, they are the last ones in their village wearing the clothes with their original purpose, and the other villagers look at them like as if they're flamboyant, exotic birds. Some of these women have died by now—Eric's photographs are the last document of this disappearing phenomenon.

EMMA KRAHL, LUSATIA

"Ich bin die Jingste und die Letzte" ("I am the youngest and the last")—that's how Emma Krahl welcomed me. Her accent was an interesting mix of Saxon and Slavic. Although Mrs. Krahl barely spoke Sorbian, it was never an issue for her to wear the traditional costume of the Evangelical Sorbian women. Many of the women in her circle of friends decided to wear German traditional costumes, but she remained loyal to the Lower Sorbian costume.

When I asked her three years ago to put on her Sunday costume, she wasn’t really that excited. She was manically turning over the hay on her field—a storm was coming up, and the hay had to be prepared for the tractor before it hit. There I was, a strange photographer, asking to see her in her traditional festive clothes. Nevertheless, she left the field and changed quickly. I shot her as she sat at her kitchen table, thinking about the hay and the storm fast approaching.

MRS. SÜSSMANN, SWALM

Anna Katharina Süssmann lived in a house with a huge and empty yard. In her living room was a painted chest, which stores all the different pieces of her traditional costumes.

“I am a Swalmian,” she said. She wasn't too accurate with the colors, though—when I visited her, she wore purple, a color that theoretically only women in their 50s can wear. She was almost 90 and was therefore only allowed to wear black. But who cares today, when nobody understands the color coding of the traditional costumes anyways? In the sitting room hung an oil painting of her great-grandmother, dressed in almost the same outfit as Mrs. Süssmann.

AGNES MÜLLER, LUSATIA

Being over 80, Agnes Müller was one of the oldest women who walked the Corpus Christi procession. The Corpus Christi procession is one of the biggest festivities of Christianity in the Lusatia area. The communion wafer is carried through the streets in a monstrance, chants and prayers accompanying the procession. Occasionally, younger women dress up in the traditional clothes for this, too.

The Catholic Sorbs live their traditions: The Corpus Christi processions are well attended, services are held in the open air, and sometimes even TV stations come by. They paint Easter eggs. Mrs. Müller was the widow of a mayor, so she was used to the camera. During the procession I was easily able to catch her on camera without her having to pose.

MARIA MIRTSCHINK, LUSATIA

The Catholic Sorbians live in lower Sorbia, where the Sorbian language is still very alive. During the GDR period, they were considered a threat to the regime because of their beliefs. Maria Mirtschink sang a song to me of those times. She was over 90, and up until a few years ago she still rode her bike. She sat in the garden like a queen, with fresh makeup on and a black ribbon in her hair.

She first asked if I was a Catholic, but then shrugged it off with a "whatever." She knew that things are different nowadays. Her father had to go to prison under Hitler and survived the Third Reich by a hair’s breadth. Mrs. Mirtschink was one of the last women who wore the traditional big white cloth on her head for major holidays.

ANNA SCHÄFER, SCHAUMBURG

Anna, 89, and I were in a district of lower Saxony called Schaumburg, a district known for its red skirts. It’s near Hannover and still governed by a duke. Anna and her daughter brought out more and more garments to show me: long heavy coats in red—for younger women—and the black hood that Mrs. Schäfer didn't really want to wear anymore because she feels too old for it. And then skirts in all colors from green to gold to black, as well as amber necklaces and ornate collars.

I imagined how full of splendor the churches back in the days were, when all the women dressed up. Based on the costume you couldn’t just tell who was wed and who wasn’t—you also knew if a women was mourning a close relative or a distant one, if the mourning period was longer than half a year, how old a woman was, and which region she was from.

ANNA PAWELCZYK, SCHAUMBURG

Anna Pawelczyk’s room was decorated in 50s chic, and she offered me cookies and coffee before starting to tell her story. She was the daughter of a poor family. Almost 100 years ago her father built this house, in which she still lived. The old house was made out of wood and was bitingly cold. Only once in her life did the woman from Schaumburg wear pants: toward the end of the war, when she had to dig trenches to protect her family from the enemy. She told this story so graphically that her daughter asked, laughing, if she'd experienced anything else at all in the course of her 91 years.

Mrs. Pawelczyk wore a Punz—a sort of bun, but not in the back of her head, in the front, right above her forehead. Traditionally, the bun was made out of their own long, braided hair, but the older women now use artificial hair. Her daughter wore jeans, a sweater, and long hair. Hand in hand, they let me photograph them while talking in a lower German dialect I barely understood.

MARIE MEIER, SCHAUMBURG

Mrs. Meier was more than 90 years old, and she welcomed me in a long skirt and an apron. When I visited her the second time, she was also willing to put on her festive costumes. Mrs. Schäfer sadly died between my visits, and Mrs. Pawelczyk was bedridden. So Marie was, therefore, the last woman of lower Saxony in the festive costume. The end of the end.

Patiently, she changed with the help of her daughter: She wore her Ülkermütze (a self-knitted headscarf), a black hood, a lush brooch made of silver with her name engraved, pearl-embroidered gloves, and magnificent colorful skirts and aprons. She sat down in a throne-like chair and let me photograph her.

The traditional dresses probably stemmed from the desire to copy the aristocratic masteries—the peasants wanted to dress in the same grand manner. If these costumes truly date back to the Renaissance, though, you can’t really tell anymore. Marie was exhausted by the time she finished posing for me, but she was still happy. “I was born here, and this is where I will leave,” she said while waiving goodbye to me. She looked magnificent.

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