Global Economics

Oktoberfest Chafes at Chinese Lederhosen


Munich folk societies warn that Bavaria's heritage is imperiled by cheap Lederhosen made in China, India, and Eastern Europe

Visitors to the opening weekend of the Munich Oktoberfest did their best to live up to the festival's proud traditions by guzzling 450,000 liters of beer and devouring 11 oxen, and the organizers expect to have served six million liters by the time the world's biggest beer party ends on Oct. 5.

At the stroke of midday on Saturday the oompah bands started up as usual and the waitresses in their Dirndl dresses began heaving handfuls of one-liter Mass glasses of rich Munich beer through the 14 giant tents. Locals and tourists from around the world climbed up onto the rough wooden tables to drink and dance their way into oblivion.

The opening of the festival was marked by two parades through Munich on Saturday and Sunday to showcase Bavaria's rich regional pageantry of folk costumes. Hundreds of thousands lined the streets to watch the processions and 900,000 visited the Oktoberfest over the weekend, the organizers said. Many tents were so full that they had to close their doors.

One might think, therefore, that everything is in order in this Alpine state that accounts for so much of Germany's national identity.

Not so, say Bavarian purists, who have warned that Bavaria's proud heritage is under threat from cheap imported Lederhosen and Dirndl dresses made in China, India and Eastern Europe.

And indeed, Munich's department stores and fashion boutiques admit that many of the outfits on sale are made from imported leather and fabrics or manufactured abroad to save costs.

Sacrilege

"We produce in the Czech Republic and Poland and the fabrics for the Dirndls come from Italy, China and Turkey," Harald Rupp of the textile firm Spieth und Wensky, which supplies Dirndl fashions to Munich stores, told Die Welt newspaper. And the leather for its Lederhosen doesn't come from deer shot on misty mornings in Bavarian forests, but from Italy and India.

For the protectors of Bavarian heritage, that is sacrilege.

The folk costumes worn by many locals to the Oktoberfest are "yuppie outfits" that have nothing to do with original Bavarian dress, says Otto Dufter, chairman of the Bavarian Federation of Folk Costume Societies. "Our societies only use the domestic Lederhosen makers, we don't use any pseudo-costumes made abroad," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Hans Lehrer, a member of the Munich-based Isargau folk costume society and a former spokesman for the federation, said: "Folk costumes should be made where they're worn. I've got a problem with imported folk dress because heritage refers to one's homeland. If people buy Lederhosen made in Romania just because that's cheaper, I'm opposed to that."

Lehrer said a good pair of embroidered deer-leather short Lederhosen made by a Bavarian tailor would cost at least €600, while imported Lederhosen costs just €150. But it was worth paying the extra money, he added. "A good Lederhose is like a second skin and it will last you your whole life if you don't get too fat."

Alexander Wandinger, an expert on Bavarian folk dress, said: "Lederhosen made in India and all over the place may be fine for the Oktoberfest but it has nothing to do with true folk costume."

Victims of Globalization

Low-cost foreign competition had forced many German textile firms out of business over the years and had also hit Bavaria's costume makers, said Mr. Wandinger, head of the Bavarian Folk Costume Information Centre, which researches Bavarian heritage and gives advice on where to buy true folk costumes.

He said there were fewer than 100 true Lederhosen makers left in Bavaria now.

The fine lace and embroidered leather costumes originate from the clothing worn by Bavaria's mountain farmers. Many designs derive from the 19th century, when they became fashionable among the Bavarian and Austrian aristocracy.

Motivated by a surge in national pride across Europe, dozens of folk societies were set up in the 19th and early 20th centuries to stage parades at festivals across Bavaria, including at the Oktoberfest.

'Dirndl-Punk' and 'Dirndl-Gate'

Oktoberfest Dirndl fashions on sale in Munich stores change from year to year with variations in pattern, cut and color, and Munich women compete with each other to keep up with the trends. A recent trend likely to get traditionalists fuming is "Dirndlpunk," a new style made of enticing combinations of hot pants and colorful revealing corsets.

To make matters worse, the wife of Bavarian governor Günther Beckstein, Marga Beckstein, refused to wear any kind of Dirndl to the opening day of this year's Oktoberfest, breaking a long-held tradition for Bavarian First Ladies.

Her move may be understandable given that she hails from the Bavarian city of Nuremberg where the women don't traditionally wear Dirndls. But it has proved so controversial in Munich circles that it is being referred to as "Dirndl Gate" and could cost her husband much-needed votes in the Bavarian regional election on September 28.

But Beckstein himself may have made up any decline in support by suggesting in a beer tent campaign speech last week that it's fine to drink two Mass of beer and drive—a statement that drew nationwide condemnation but may have struck a chord with the millions of lovers of Bavaria's delicious amber nectar.

But despite Dirndl Gate and the warnings from purists, there's no sign that Bavarian culture is in much danger.

Heritage Remains Strong

The costume societies continue to thrive, with a membership totaling an impressive 200,000 registered adults and 100,000 children.

Germany's main public TV network ARD provided live coverage of Sunday's Bavarian folk costume parade through Munich, with a commentator telling viewers everything they'll ever need to know about the types of bird feathers used in the felt hats and the design of costume buttons from societies from all over Bavaria.

Some 9,000 people took part in Sunday's parade, showing off Lederhosen and Dirndls that are very definitely Made in Bavaria.

The Oktoberfest itself has become more traditional in the last three years. The organizers have ordered the oompah bands in the tents, some of which seat up to 10,000 people, to play more traditional music and to keep the volume down.

The change was a response to complaints from older visitors that the festival was turning into a disco and losing its Bavarian character.

"It's definitely given the festival a more traditional feel again and I've also noted that ever more people, young and old, are wearing Bavarian costumes," said Gabriele Papke, spokeswoman for the festival.

The Oktoberfest dates back to the wedding in October 1810 of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig with Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The public festivities went on for five days and proved so popular they were repeated each year since except in wartime and during two cholera epidemics.

At last year's Oktoberfest visitors ate 521,873 roast chickens, 58,446 pork knuckles and 104 oxen. They consumed 6.9 million liters of beer which is supplied exclusively by Munich's six main breweries and is brewed especially for the festival. The list of lost items collected from under the tables is a good indication of how intense the partying can get—last year it included four sets of false teeth, 1,600 pieces of clothing, 600 identity cards and credit cards, and one complete Dirndl dress.


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