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Looking for Little Red Riding Hood
By Mary B. Lytle
Copyright © 1997-2014 by Mary B. Lytle. All rights reserved.

Little Red Riding HoodAlong the Märchenstraße in the state of Hessen lies a small region known as "the Schwalm." I like to call it "Rotkäppchenland" because the Brothers Grimm immortalized the area with their story entitled "Rotkäppchen," or "Little Red Cap" – the adventure of a young girl who, on her way to grandmother's house, has a run-in with the big bad wolf. The English version of the story "Little Red Riding Hood" is familiar to us all. But not so familiar is the unusual Schwälmer Tracht, the traditional costume of the Schwalm, which inspired the title of the Grimm Brothers' story, and which is a far cry from the red, hooded cape in which the little girl is commonly depicted.

As you drive through the villages of the Schwalm, all strung together like half-timbered pearls on the string of the Märchenstraße, you can still catch occasional glimpses of older women wearing the Schwälmer Tracht dating back to the Protestant Reformation: several above-the-knee skirts layered one over another, a blouse of home-woven linen, shoulder shawl, white gusseted stockings, and the distinctive "Schnatz" – a little knot of hair that sits directly atop the head. On holidays and festive occasions, this top-knot is covered with a "Betzel," which for young girls is a "little red cap." (Married women wear a green Betzel until the age of 40, which turns to lilac until the age of 50, and finally black for women over 50 or in mourning.) No longer daily wear since shortly after World War II, it is only on holidays and festivals that whole villages turn out dressed in the unique and colorful Schwälmer Tracht, which they so proudly revere.

My husband and I went to a little village in the heart of the Schwalm in search of "Little Red Riding Hood." Our purpose was to research the traditional costume of the region in order to develop a sewing pattern for an authentic Little Red Riding Hood costume in which to dress antique German dolls. We arrived in Ziegenhain on the second Sunday after Pfingstsonntag, when, ever since 1728, the villagers celebrate their "Lettuce Festival." This festival commemorates the day on which the potato (a "New World" plant) was introduced to the farmers of the Schwalm by their Landgrave, Carl (1654-1730). It seems that Count Carl invited the farmers to a lettuce-and-potato party, ostensibly to "sell" them on the idea of planting potatoes. Thus Carl launched a tradition which has ever since been referred to as the "Salat Fest," or "Lettuce Festival." But I digress.

HochzeitOn this Sunday, as if making an extraordinary effort to fulfill our desire to find the Grimms' little red-capped girl, the villagers of Ziegenhain offered up a magnificent costume parade replete with marching bands, floats representing great moments in Schwalm history or extolling the virtues of the potato, and a "cast of hundreds" — of all ages — dressed in Schwälmer Trachten. The most spectacular sight, a real crowd-pleaser, was a group of young men and women representing a Schwalm wedding party, including a bride, a groom, and a multitude of guests. The bride wore no less than 15 skirts, a yoke of green silk ribbon, and a bodice heavily embroidered in silver. On her head she wore a crown of colored-glass "pearls." The groom was decked out in his tricorn decorated on the front with a huge red and gold ribbon arranged in an inverted "V" and topped with a "Lust," consisting of twigs of rosemary and the same colored-glass "pearls" as in the bride's crown. The wedding guests were every bit as splendid as the bridal pair. After the parade I tracked down one of the wedding guests for a photograph. As she posed regally for the snapshot, she told me that her costume was her great-grandmother's wedding dress!

The greater part of the wealth a Schwalm bride brought to her marriage was in her clothes. In 1941, the minister of a local church reported that a bride from the Schwalm contributed the following to the wedding: 38 blouses, 75 skirts, 25 aprons, 40 pairs of stockings, 16 pairs of stocking ribbons, 24 bodices, 15 cardigans, 10 pairs of gloves, 37 head- and neck-scarves, 18 caps, and a considerable amount of home-woven linen. Such an inventory represented the accumulation of generations and supplied a Schwalm wife for her lifetime. It would have been unconscionable to trade such a treasure of rural costume for more contemporary and expensive dress. Thus was the traditional costume of the Schwalm so long preserved.

If you would see Rotkäppchen and the spectacle of the "Lettuce Festival" for yourself, be sure to go to Ziegenhain on the second Sunday after Pentecost. And if you would like to learn more about the fascinating history and costume of these people of the Schwalm, there are several "rural life museums" in the area: the Museum der Schwalm in Ziegenhain, the Dorfmuseum in Holzburg, the Heimatmuseum in Neukirchen, the Regionalmuseum in Alsfeld, and the Malerstübchen in Willingshausen. There is also a wonderful book, in English, entitled "Little Red Ridinghood, The History of the Traditional Costumes of the Schwalm", published by Dirk Ordemann, ISBN 3-9802008-0-9, which is loaded with beautiful color pictures of Schwälmer Trachten.