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Austrians go lederhosen-loopy in rural revival

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

"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 ($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."

-- Elvis of the Alps --

Nothing personifies an accompanying boom -- again, with a twist -- in "volksmusik" ("folk music") among young Austrians better than Andreas Gabalier, meanwhile.

Gabalier hits like "Mei Herz schlogt nur fuer di" ("My heart beats only for you") and "Auf der Alm" ("On the mountain pasture") are hardly cutting edge in a musical style long awash with odes to bucolic simplicity and saccharine love ditties.

But his cheeky grin, often-shirtless muscled frame and pelvic gyrations -- women faint at his concerts and throw bras on stage -- have turned this quiffed 29-year-old, helped by savvy marketing learned from pop and rock, into a sensation.

He has also breathed new life into what was a somewhat tired genre. Ten years ago, 13 albums in Austria's top-selling 100 were volksmusik. Last year it was 24, including four in the top 10 -- three of them by Gabalier.

Thomas Boehm from the Austrian music industry association (IFPI) rejects any suggestion that young people are turning their backs on other types of music, or indeed on modern life.

"This phenomenon shouldn't be too romanticised. There are young, confident people out there who will combine their dirndl with cowboy boots, go to a Gabalier concert one day and then dance to Rihanna or David Guetta the next," he told AFP.

"Boundaries are disappearing, anything is possible."

But Helga Maria Wolf, an ethnologist who has written several books on the subject, believes that this back-to-the-old phenomenon is in part a reaction to a worldwide homogenisation of culture and fashion.

"I think it has a lot to do with globalisation. The more international everything becomes, the more people will want a small piece of their homeland," Wolf told AFP.

She also notes another aspect of this new "landlust", that of a rise in popularity of some often bizarre traditions, mostly in rural areas but increasingly also in towns and cities.

A major source for these is Servus, Austria's monthly bible of all things rural launched only in 2010 -- by the Austrian company that gave the world the energy drink Red Bull -- but now its most-sold magazine.

They include processions of six-metre (20-foot) figures of the Biblical figure Samson or of 80-kilo (175-pound) "prangerstange", tree trunks lovingly decked out in meadow flowers -- traditions going back hundreds of years.

Others involve "perchten" and "krampus" parades, people wearing hideous devil or animal masks meant to frighten winter -- and naughty children -- or 30-metre piles of wood with an exploding witch effigy on top set on fire during Lent.

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