A selection of dirndls in the "Münchner Dirndl" manufactory.

Interview with expert Carolin Engelhardt

“The beauty of the traditional dress lies in its timelessness”

In Munich, traditional costume is not just a favourite outfit for the Oktoberfest. Carolin Engelhardt, founder and creative director of “Münchner Dirndl“-manufactory, gives an insight into the world of dirndls and why tradition is still alive today.

If you want a genuine “Munich Dirndl“ (women's traditional Bavarian dress) from Carolin Engelhardt, you have to put in a little effort. Her studio in the heart of Schwabing district has no fixed opening hours and no doorbell; visits are only possible by appointment. She does not run an online shop either. Nevertheless, her creations are in surging demand. Because her brand is a rarity in times when dirndl online shops are booming and tradition is fading more and more into the background. A conversation about the perfect dirndl pattern, its roots in classic fashion and why she personally owns only two dirndls.

 

Ms Engelhardt, do you still remember your first dirndl?

I didn't get my first genuine dirndl until I turned 30 – a birthday present from my parents.

That's pretty late, isn't it?

Well, I already had dirndl dresses as a child, but I didn't get my first “genuine“ dirndl until I turned 30. At that point, I had a fervent desire for an original dirndl. And it absolutely had to be the Salzburg-style dirndl, because I simply loved the craftsmanship that went into it. I had never seen anything like it before.

In 2017, you established your own dirndl label. How did that come about?

I pursued my studies at the French fashion school Esmond in Munich and worked at Jil Sander during that time. There, I gained a deep appreciation for the value of working with high-quality, expensive materials. In 2007 I had my dirndl made in Salzburg for a birthday party. That marked a key moment for me. I thought to myself: It's a pity that you have to travel from Munich to Salzburg to get this kind of traditional dirndl. So, for almost a decade, I nurtured the idea of bringing such dirndls to Munich.

Why did it take so long?

I designed my own pattern from front to back myself, investing an incredible amount of effort and energy, not to mention money. The tailor responsible for sewing all the prototypes recently said to me: “Carolin, you have to finally stop trying to constantly tweak your pattern.“

How does the creative process for a dirndl differ from that of a “normal“ dress?

One huge difference is the pattern gradation. Gradation means: when you modify a pattern, you have to accommodate at least four sizes. You sew a pattern in size 32, in 38 and at least in 46. Beyond size 38, the customer's height usually remains constant; the adjustments mainly concern the width. And that's the complex part.

“I thought to myself: It's a pity that you have to travel from Munich to Salzburg to get this kind of traditional dirndl. So, for almost a decade, I nurtured the idea of bringing such dirndls to Munich.“
Carolin Engelhardt

Is that different from a “normal” dress?

Yes. With a “normal“ dress, such as a tunic, we don't need gradation; the fabric flows freely. In this case, the most important thing is that the armhole is big enough.

How many dirndls do you have in total?

I have two.

Quite minimalistic.

True, but I don't need a lot. Besides, you can always modify dirndls, add a silk apron for a more formal occasion or later incorporate what's called frog-mouth embroidery, which is an elaborate handmade traditional lace. One of the two dirndls is a Salzburg traditional dress, and it has and will always have a special place as my first dirndl.

How do you recognise a high-quality dirndl?

The first rule is to touch it and assess what materials are used. Then it's advisable to check the pattern. My patterns, for example, have few distinctive features: I have optimised the armhole for this pattern, my straps run differently compared to most other brands. There are many small details that often only become apparent at second glance. And some special features reveal themselves when you turn a dirndl inside out and inspect it. Then you see how a dirndl is finished. Another difference: the bodice. In the past, a glue-like liquid was used to provide stability. These bodices were referred to as being “gschmissen”. I, on the other hand, use at least eight double hooks and bodice coil springs made of metal as well as additional fleece inserts for lasting stability. These hooks have to support several kilos – a filigree zip cannot achieve that.

“If I had to pick a colour, it would be blue. That's Munich, that's Bavarian. And blue looks good on almost every woman. That's why I currently offer six shades of blue: Violet, Forget-Me-Not, Royal, Ink, Night and Sky Blue.“
Carolin Engelhardt

Does the fabric also play a role?

It is the fabric volume that makes a difference – this pays off especially with a well-crafted hem. Some may cheat by folding the hem over only once to reduce the amount of fabric needed. We fold the hem at least twice to create extra volume. In total, our skirts use up to three metres of fabric. The origin of the fabric also plays an important role for me.

What else distinguishes your dirndls?

The print, the pattern and the quality. I know what is used in my dirndls, which not all brands can claim. For example, I incorporate metal bodice springs, which are not only very robust, but also flexible. You can feel it when you run your hands over them. For cost reasons, they are hardly used nowadays. You can also use plastic rods, cut them to size, stick them in and that's it. But if they bend, you have to take the whole dirndl apart.

How important is tradition for you?

Very important. I don't go with the flow, but rather do what I think is right for the traditional dress. Many Dirndl brands are primarily focused on selling as many Dirndls in as many combinations as possible – whether with rhinestones, glitter or plastic from top to bottom.

Strictly speaking, the prints on your fabrics are not “typical Munich” either. How do tradition and innovation go together for you?

I attach value to tradition in my way of working and in the choice of materials. I just rework the material into a different variation. However, with my prints, I like to be innovative. Even the originally all-black Munich traditional dress has little symbols woven into the fabric.

What do you think about trends in traditional dress?

I think it is difficult. In principle, I work with colours that I come across somewhere in nature and think: Wow, that would be a great colour for a dirndl. I orientate on what a colour does to the person wearing the dirndl. But if I had to pick a colour, it would be blue. That's Munich, that's Bavarian. And blue looks good on almost every woman. That's why I currently offer six shades of blue: Violet, Forget-Me-Not, Royal, Ink, Night and Sky Blue. Most of these are custom-dyed for me according to my specifications.

“The beauty of the traditional dress lies in its timelessness. If you wear it for an extended period and perhaps pass it on, that's another aspect of sustainability.“
Carolin Engelhardt

People can only come to you by appointment. Why is that?

I want to provide ample time for customers who are genuinely interested in a dirndl. No one leaves the shop without the dirndl that fits perfectly. That's not possible with online shops. I'm often asked if I would consider selling my dirndls online, but I always decline. I don't think it's environmentally conscious to ship the goods back and forth.

How do you implement sustainability at Münchner Dirndl?

The fact that we don't have an online shop is a key step. We strive to produce as sustainably as possible and I work exclusively with companies from Germany and Austria. In Munich, we deliver everything by bicycle, only use natural materials and minimise waste. And the beauty of the traditional dress lies in its timelessness.  If you wear it for an extended period and perhaps pass it on, that's another aspect of sustainability.

Finally, let's do a quick dirndl no-go quiz. A woman wearing lederhosen (traditional leather trousers) at the Wiesn (Oktoberfest fairground) – cool or uncool?

Personally, I always find a woman in a dress more beautiful than in lederhosen.

Skirt above the knee?

Not the best idea in my opinion. I believe: the longer the skirt, the sexier and more beautiful the dirndl. And if you want to shorten it later, that's easy to do. Lengthening, on the other hand, is difficult. However, with my dirndls that's not an issue because I add an extra hem.

Dirndl without a blouse?

That's an option, but not my preference.

Sneakers with a dirndl?

I think that's cool and, above all, comfortable. But I also like simple ballerinas.

 

 

Text: Nansen & Piccard; Photos: Frank Stolle
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