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By Francois Murphy
VIENNA (Reuters) - Many in Austria believe you can quite literally wear your patriotism on your sleeve. Or your dress. Or your embroidered leather shorts. And increasingly, they are.
Traditional dress, or "tracht", has been making a comeback. What was once largely the preserve of rural conservatives - evoking hunters, oompah bands, ankle-slapping folk dancers - has found new fans, despite lingering political connotations.
What its supporters see as a classic style has shed much of the Nazi-tinged stigma that clung to it since it was promoted under Hitler, himself an Austrian. But beneath the benign tradition and modern kitsch a potent national symbol remains.
Purveyors of tracht - flowing, low-cut dirndl dresses with colorful aprons for women, and an array of men's options including high-collared jackets and lederhosen leather shorts - say business has been booming in recent years.
"Before, there were good times, there were bad times. And now these are crazy times," said Wolfgang Witzky, who runs Trachten-Witzky, a mid-range tracht shop next to Vienna's Stephansdom cathedral in the heart of the city.
He illustrated his point with sales of lederhosen, which start at 98 euros ($104) a pair: "Five, six years ago it was a couple of hundred a year. Now it's a couple of thousand."
Many of his customers are tourists headed to the Oktoberfest beer festival in neighboring Germany, where tracht is popular, but businesses across Austria also described a "boom".
A surge in Oktoberfest-inspired events is partly responsible, especially in cities, where many still would not be seen dead in tracht.
But tracht has also become an issue in Austria's repeatedly extended presidential election, which will be held on Sunday.
Candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, an environmentalist, city-dwelling former academic, swapped his blazer for a tracht jacket at rural events this summer in an attempt to win over skeptical country folk.
"If Van der Bellen has decided to buy a tracht I congratulate him," his opponent Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party said in a televised debate last week, a barb that suggested Van der Bellen was late and less than sincere.
The presidential run-off is too close to call, but the Freedom Party is running first in opinion polls. It has championed tracht at its rowdy meetings in beer tents, aimed at striking a contrast with what it calls a stiff political elite.
To Hofer, tracht is an expression of "heimat", the homeland, a term he and Van der Bellen have used abundantly.
"It cannot be denied that people with right-wing ideas are also prone to wearing tracht or like tracht," said Gexi Tostmann, who ran the upmarket Tostmann Trachten family business before handing it over to her daughter.
She sees several reasons for the trend, including a reaction to globalisation: "Some want to express a political preference, others want to express awareness of tradition, for others it is regional identity, and others it is tradition, religion, the church, for others still it is craftsmanship, the environment and (quality) materials."
Whatever the reasons, tracht is appealing to a younger audience. At the Wiener Kathreintanz, a tracht-filled Vienna folk ball, a minority of under-40s mingled with a significantly older crowd.
"National pride was of course strongly suppressed after the Second World War," said Matthias Uiberacker, a 40-year-old software designer who said he was not a Hofer supporter.
"Now we are coming back slightly to a point where people are saying 'Why not be proud?' I'm not a bad person just because I might be proud of certain traditions," he said.
($1 = 0.9439 euros)
(Additional reporting by Leonhard Foeger and Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich Editing by Jeremy Gaunt; Writing by Francois Murphy)