Every year, round about the end of September through to the first week of October, Munich, the Bavarian capital, is hit by an internationally-renowned, centuries-old phenomenon which completely changes the city’s character from a pleasantly cultured air to an alcohol-fuelled haze of sea-shantying, swaying, beer-swilling madness. Locals call this ‘die Wiesn’. Some call it ‘ein Chaos’ and make plans to be out of town for its duration. The rest of the world calls it Oktoberfest.
It all kicks off with a parade of national costume groups from all over Europe, waving flags, dancing, blowing horns, riding horses- there was even a carpenter carving wooden sculptures on one of the floats. They all walk through the city, up to Theresienwiese, the site of the main festivities. Some lovely old ladies, pitying my shortness, let me stand at the front of the teeming crowds lining the street, opposite the Bayerischer Hof (“I’ve translated for the Hof!” I couldn’t help thinking smugly.) A thrilling addition to the proceedings involved whips... men in scarlet waistcoats stood in formation (everyone cowered) and simultaneously struck the ground with a din like gunshots.
What couldn’t have been clearer was that one integral component of the Bavarian lifestyle is traditional dress: Lederhosen with stockings and waistcoats for men, and Dirndls and perky little hats for the ladies. It isn’t just reserved for Oktoberfest; you genuinely will see people of all ages and nationalities wearing them all year round. Around Oktoberfest time (even up to a month before), seeing someone who isn’t wearing it is unusual. It thus became apparent to me that I, a registered Bavarian citizen, could embrace the ever-growing trend myself. I wasn’t a mere tourist, spending a small fortune for something I wouldn’t wear after this visit. No, I was now a Münchner on paper and in affinity. I took a sneaky trip to C&A, along with about half of the western world, or so it seemed, to take advantage of the sale to pick up a Dirndl.
For those who have not yet had the pleasure of doing the same, let me put it thus: Wearing Tracht is like being allowed to wear fancy dress even though it’s not Halloween and you aren’t five years old. It makes you feel special, but not silly, because everyone else is wearing it too; and the special feeling reflects itself in the little spring in your step, the swish of your skirts. I don’t usually get like this about clothes, much to the benefit of my purse- what with that and being a non-drinker, my boyfriend delights in my relatively low expensiveness. But it was just one of those things- I saw it, heavy blue cotton with a print of faded roses, a dainty puff-sleeved lace blouse under it, laced with bright frills and ribbon, and thought immediately, “That one- if I am actually going to do this- is definitely the one.”
What a mad profusion of colours and fabrics and bijoux. Older women wore more sober colours and prints, but their dresses were the genuine article, passed down to them from their own mothers, down through the generations, and they accessorised them with jaunty little feathered hats and jangling chain belts of charms. Most girls stuck to the traditional checkered pattern, but chose lime green, fuschia pink and sky blue, bearing gingerbread hearts and tiny heart-shaped handbags and heavy glass pendants. Thus musing, and now suitably attired, I braved the crush on the train and did Oktoberfest.
What’s it like? It’s a funfair teeming with all sorts of rides and food stalls, but so much BIGGER. It’s a mad mélange of chair-o-planes, Ferris wheels, rollercoasters, candy floss, Bratwurst, pretzels, candied nuts and neon lights. Oh, and everyone is dressed like something out of a storybook, even the ones vomiting profusely on the grass verge. What makes this fair different is the beer tents, built as solidly as actual houses. I went to the red-and-yellow Hippodrome, where a brass band played before the teeming masses- and of course, every other song was ‘Ein Prosit!’, the cue for swigging and tankard-clashing. Furtively I glanced around. All the Münchners had their apron bows tied at their hips, not at the back. I retied mine accordingly.
In work several days later, I brought the Dirndl out again, and a colleague gave me an amused look. “You’re wearing your bow on the wrong side,” she said.
She taught me the rules. An uncomfortable thought occurred to me.
“So if you wear it at the back...”
“Oh, whatever you do, don’t do that. It means you’re divorced, or widowed.”
Ah well, we live and learn...
So anyway, if you happen to see someone who looks like they’ve stepped straight out of ‘The Sound of Music’ waltzing around Bath next year, full of the joys of spring, don’t be alarmed, and don’t send for the men in white coats. It’s only me. 🙂