“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.
“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.
Like Ms Li, many young ladies on the cusp of womanhood in Austria sees the Vienna Opera Ball as a rite of passage and an awakening to a higher calling. In realising their own dreams, they aspire to contribute back to the society that has shaped them.
“It’s a milestone. I tell myself, I’m ready for bigger things in society,” says Ms Nina-Johanna Stangl, 22, a Viennese primary school teacher who is dancing at the ball with her boyfriend of eight years Sebastian Posch, an economics undergraduate.
Her elder sister debuted at the ball the year before, and her mother, headmaster of a primary school, did so a generation before. Ms Stangl’s father works in private wealth management.
Like Ms Li, Ms Stangl is interested in addressing the issues of body shaming, gender inequality and social media, which are pertinent to their generation. And traditions such as the Vienna Opera Ball, she says, has helped her to appreciate the power of core values, especially in her work as an educator.
She says: “My students are 10 to 11 and are already using their phones to get on social media. It has become normal for young girls growing up to look at pictures of other girls who look perfect, and compare themselves to them. They grow up with these thoughts.
“And I want to teach the girls how to deal with the influence of technology. there’s just too much that can go wrong with the Internet. And we can start by teaching them core values, helping them build the strength from within – the strength to say no to things they don’t think is right, the strength to not having to compare themselves with others and so on.”
Ms Li is also concerned about the influence that social media has on young women.
She says: “Technology today has such a huge impact on the psyches of young women. Especially in social media. Women, more so than men, have become overly self-conscious and more likely to suffer from body image issues.”
Gender equality is another issue that the debutantes care deeply about.
Ms Stangl admits that she is hard-pressed to name an Austrian woman in a leadership position whom she admires. In 2015, the Global Gender Gap Index ranked Austrian women 52 out of 149 (Singaporean women ranked 58).
She says: “In Austrian politics, there are a lot of incumbents and so there’s no space for women to stand out. This is a problem. There should be more women there.”
Ms Nadja Swarovski adds: “Within the Austrian or Swiss environment, it’s still very chauvinistic.” Ms Swarovski is an executive board member of the Swarovski family business ( and the great-great granddaughter of the founder Daniel Swarovski) which has been designing and producing the tiaras worn by debutantes at the ball since the 1950s, says: “It’s in getting people used to a different paradigm that is the challenge.”
Says Ms Stangl: “It’s not like we don’t care. No – we are passionate about making that happen. Austrian women want more women everywhere.”
Editor’s Notes: The Glitterati at this year’s Vienna Opera Ball
The Vienna Opera Ball is into its 64th edition this year, and always held at the institutional Vienna State Opera House, incidentally celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Traditionally, the invitation reads “Frack mit Dekorationen”, which mandates a strict dress code of ball gowns and tailcoats only. Female guests cannot wear white – the colour is reserved for debutantes only. And male attendees who show up in smoking suits have also been known to be turned away.
This year’s event has drawn a diverse crowd including politicians, celebrities and social media influencers. Spotted in the opera stalls was Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, and
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who at 32 is the world’s youngest sitting head of government. and Ms Marica Pellegrinelli, wife of Italian singer Eros Ramazotti, in a traffic-stopping Versace gown. As were former top model and TV host Elle MacPherson, Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, and Eurovision winner and drag artist Conchita Wurst.
Elsewhere, Germany’s Next Top Models alum Jana Heinisch and Betty Taube, wife of Genoa GFC footballer Koray Gunter, were seen taking selfies with their followers. And together, they made up the 5,000-strong attendees that night.
Here are some the highlights from the ball.