Lederhosen and its accoutrements (socks, shirt, hat) were originally just work clothes for much of Central Europe, but especially the mountain regions of Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Made of thick deer leather and virtually indestructible, the shorts were perfect for the day to day task for the Alpine farmer.
As more and more people moved to cities in the early 19th century, it became uncool to wear rough, work clothes in daily life. The shorts disappeared almost entirely, only to experience a renaissance in the 1880s that recast them as the source of Bavarian pride they are today.
The reasons why are complex, but basically boil down to a fetishization of the working class by nobility (thanks to King Ludwig II) and increasing interest in national costumes and creation myths as a marker of more nationalist sentiment across Europe (history of kilts, anyone?)
These days, it’s quite normal for Bavarian men to wear lederhosen to weddings, church, or just walking around town. It’s a symbol of local pride and a marker of difference between Bavaria and the rest of Germany—a little like Texans wearing cowboy boots and hats even if they’ve never set foot on a ranch.
When visiting Bavaria, it’s certainly not necessary to wear lederhosen, but it can be quite fun, particularly during Oktoberfest. They come in several lengths, so the first step is to decide if you’re a short shorts kind of guy, mid-thigh, or over-the-knee. Young boys usually wear the shortest ones.
A traditional, embroidered pair made of deer leather can cost upwards of €2,500, but it is possible to kit yourself out respectively with a cow leather pair for around €200.
Of course, the shorts can’t be worn alone. Knee-high woollen socks, leather shoes, and a white or checked shirt complete the basic look. Suspenders, either H-shaped or the less common “M” shape are optional.
For advanced level, add a jacket and felt hat with feathers, flowers or a Gamsbart (a bit like an inverted, bushy tuft of hair), and maybe a well-styled mustache.
It is possible to buy second-hand lederhosen in many shops and online, but do take into consideration the fact that they are never washed. So the 100-year-old shorts you might wear have been kept supple by the oil from the previous owner’s body. Just F.Y.I.