Women Now

Women empowerment in Austria: a new social consciousness

At the Vienna Ball, Her World discovers a new generation of young women who are driven by a new social conscience

“It’s the biggest party in Europe and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Ms Viola Li, 21, one of the debutantes at this year’s Vienna Opera Ball.

Like other Generation Z debutantes, she is about to step out in three-quarter time to Carl Michael Ziehrer’s Facherpolonaise, a standard score to mark the debutantes’ stage entry at the Wiener Staatsoper, or Vienna State Opera House.

Each year, hundreds of women – and men - between 18 and 25 audition to be part of this decades-old tradition, and only a fraction - 144 this year – get selected to dance at the Opera Hall at the tail end of every winter in February. This year’s ball – as with tradition – was held on Feb28, the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday.

Held under the patronage of the Austrian President, this “biggest party in Europe” sees women don white ball gowns and Swarovski crystal-encrusted tiaras – designed by Donatella Versace this year no less (last year's was designed by Dolce & Gabanna, and the year before, Karl Lagerfeld) – and the men tailcoats, to be ceremoniously presented to society.

Ms Li, who was born to Chinese parents, is an unusual face at the historic soiree. In a way, the Vienna-born-and bred student represents a progressive side to Europe’s most important, extravagant ball. 

In recent years, the Vienna Opera Ball has taken a more diverse and inclusive stance in wooing the participation of a post-millennial generation of women. This year’s debutantes include Japanese, Chinese, American and Italian youth.

Ethnicities aside, there was also a young couple with Down Syndrome.

Photo: AFP

“I don’t look Austrian so it’s great that many other nationalities are also part of this ceremony,” says Ms Li. “It shows the diversity of women in Austrian society.”

She has flown back for the ball from the University of the Arts London, where she studies fashion management. Her parents had settled in the city and founded successful tourism businesses. Her mother is the director of this year’s Vienna International Art Festival.

Being part of this culturally significant event has helped Ms Li feel accepted in her birth country. And now, she feels ready to give back.

She tells Her World that when she charts her fashion career, she hopes to use fashion as a means to change women’s obsession with their own self image.