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Austrians go lederhosen-loopy in rural revival

VILLACH, Austria -- “When I was 15 I didn't wear lederhosen, it just wasn't cool,” says Markus, 26, resplendent in his traditional Alpine leather shorts. “But now almost all young people have them.”

Talking to AFP as he clutched a can of beer at the 70th annual Kirchtag in Villach, Austria's biggest festival of folk traditions held earlier this month, Markus is right.

This picture-postcard, conservative country, which holds elections next month, is seeing a boom in all things traditional and rural, whether it be “dirndl” dresses, mountain melodies or eccentric medieval customs.

And the phenomenon is driven mostly by younger people, particularly urbanites, putting their own fun twist on what not so long ago was seen as hopelessly fuddy-duddy.

Hemlines on dirndls for example are rising, well above the knee in some cases, while even shorter are the lederhosen for women, as seen at the growing number of traditional festivals, such as Vienna's three-year-old “Wiener Wiesn.”

“It's easier to dance in a shorter dirndl,” explains Bernadette, one of a trio of dirndl-wearing 16-year-olds dispensing schnaps to festivalgoers in southern Villach at a euro (US$1.30) a tipple. “It's very fashionable.”

Booze-fuelled parties and club nights where the dress code is “trachten” (traditional) are now “in,” something which “a few years ago would have been the most embarrassing thing in the world,” according to the monthly magazine Format.

They have also caught on outside Austria and southern Germany, where dirndls are also in vogue, with starlets from Paris Hilton to Katy Perry donning one to appear on German or Austrian TV or to be seen at the Oktoberfest in Munich.

Budget retailers have sprung up to meet the surge in demand, selling dirndls and lederhosen made in eastern Europe and Asia for less than 100 euros — a fraction of what a “real” one costs, much to the disgust of purists. They are even on sale in discount supermarket Hofer, the Austrian subsidiary of Aldi.

The low-cost market leader, Zillertaler Trachtenwelt, whose adverts feature buxom “Baywatch” star Pamela Anderson clad in a dirndl, was founded only eight years ago but now has 33 shops and revenues of 30 million euros.

“There is so much bad news in the world that people are learning to appreciate their own country again,” company spokeswoman Julia Wegscheider believes.

“Being proud to be Austrian has become important for young people again. We have such a beautiful country,” she told AFP. “Everything is good and quiet.”

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