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Costumes of the Bregenzerwald

The women of the Bregenzerwald marched bravely towards the attackers. When the attackers saw the women approaching in their white clothes, they turned and ran: they took the women to be angels. Since then, legend has it, the women wear dark skirts – to avoid being mistaken for otherworldly beings.

That was in the year 1647 and at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, when the women drove out marauding Swedish soldiers. The fact that the women acted so fearlessly – as the legend tells – may have something to do with love, and with the skills of their men: since the 16th century, Vorarlberg men from the Bregenzerwald region were sought-after as specialist craftsmen and master builders on all the major construction sites of Europe. This demand reached its high point during the Baroque period.

As the men were often away from home for long periods, the women took the day-to-day concerns of their lives – including defence – into their own hands. When the men then returned home to the Bregenzerwald, as proof of their affections they brought with them exotic and flattering delights from every sovereign country – furs, ribbons, gold-smithing work, and special fabrics. These were incorporated into 'Sunday best' clothing like pieces of jewellery: and so it is that the costume known as the “Juppe” worn by Bregenzerwald women (comprising a tightly-pleated, high skirt, bodice, sleeves, apron and decorative belt) is simultaneously one of the oldest women’s costumes found in the Alpine region, but also one interlaced with elements of styles drawn from Madrid to Moscow.

The very name itself – along with the shape of the skirt – derives from the French word “jupe”. The black color and the wide-brimmed straw hat can be traced back to Spanish influences, while the fur-trimmed cap draws on Russian models. And the hats have it: when leaving the house, a head-covering was a mandatory requirement from 1560 on – and the Bregenzerwald women complied, with a great deal of fashionable flair and in many different styles. After all, this majestically-shimmering, heavy costume (the seam of the skirt has a circumference of nearly five yards) with its lavish sleeves and broad, decorated chest covering demands a crowning glory to complement it. Often in earlier times it was a lace cap, but that only looks truly superb with plaited hair worn up; and after women began wearing their hair in other styles, an artistic hat came into fashion which, even though its origins are found in the museum, can cause haute couture to look on with envy. Angelika Kauffmann, the famous artist and treasured friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, provided the model: she painted a portrait in 1781 of herself wearing the “Juppe” and a seductive hat of her time, pitched at a rakish angle.

Today, the “Juppe” is still being manufactured in one workshop in Riefensberg; it is always custom-made to fit the individual wearer, and is a one-off piece. This workshop is simultaneously a model works and museum: taking a guided tour, visitors learn about the individual stages in beautifying the skirt, from achieving its shimmer to pleating. In the show rooms, visitors finally grasp the ultimate, almost courtly elegance of the Bregenzerwald “Juppe”, worn at festivals with suitable pride and feminine nobility, and preferred to all other dresses on account of its rich beauty.

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