Destinations Magazine

Vienna’s Balls

By Linda
christmas street decorations

photo : Stefan Weihs

You will be excused from thinking this is an article about football, golf – or anything else to do with small round objects. It’s about Viennese Balls – something quite special and well worth thinking about if you are a lover of culture and tradition. It also concerns the expectations the Austrians have about what you wear!

The Size and Shape of the Ball

A Ball is a formal dance related event, which may or may not include a dining experience – either buffet or full meal. The word Ball derives from the Latin ballare, meaning to dance.

An invitation to a Ball usually specifies what attire should be worn. This may be either ‘black tie’ or ‘white tie’. It’s most important that you make sure you have the right clothing for the particular type of dance you’re attending – especially in Austria.

Viennese Balls are generally among the most formalised occasions you might find anywhere in the world. In the rural and mountainous areas of the provinces (Federal states), you might get away with wearing something more casual. But for a Viennese Ball, only the foolhardy fail to wear what’s right.

Austrian adherence to tradition is legendary. You could find yourself banned from the Ball if you don’t get it right!

Black Tie Ball Dress

‘Black tie’ Balls follow a convention that dates back to the 19th century and relates to what the best dressed of Royal courtiers and gentry wore after 18:00.

These Balls are the less formal of the formal dances. Men’s suits are usually black, with lapels and trouser braiding in silk or a contrasting rich material. Jackets may be:

  • box or single vented design
  • single or double-breasted
  • and with buttons that actually do their job. These jackets can be fastened. How novel!

Accessories are as important for a man’s outfit as they are for adorning women. These include:

  • a white collared shirt
  • black bow-tie – not red spotted with flashing lights or any other colour and gimmick you might fancy
  • waistcoat or cummerbund – not both together
  • patent or well polished black dress shoes
  • jewellery and especially watches, should be discreet – so it’s perhaps best to leave your hikers all-in-one watch-cum-GPS-cum- scuba diving special at home!

Women’s Wear

antique ball gown

photo : Sacheverelle

Women traditionally wear Ballerina (ankle length) or full evening gown to such dancing dates, though tea-length (mid-calf) is also acceptable. In some situations and circumstances, the more modern cocktail dress that comes to the knee may be acceptable – but put it on at your peril for a Viennese Ball!

Generally speaking, the colour of choice isn’t an issue in Austria – unless of course, you’re a débutante or young woman in which case you should wear white. And although traditionally ball gowns were worn off-shoulder or strapless, in today’s society short and capped sleeves are also acceptable (especially if you don’t happen to have the bone structure of a wire coat hanger!).

Ball gowns are usually full-skirted (not particularly flattering if you happen to be a bit on the dumpy side), though since the 1920s – when the Flapper fads in fashion dictated everything should be anything but traditional – more sleek lines have been acceptable. Pick a style that suits your shape.

Accessories should include:

  • a stole, cape or cloak – ski jackets are a definite ‘no-no’
  • white gloves or ones that match your dress – length is an issue. As a rule, over the elbow is the safest to choose
  • dancing shoes or ballerina style pumps to match your outfit
  • clutch bag and quality jewellery – leave the rucksack and junk jewellery at the chalet!

White Tie Ball Dress

Many of the 450 plus Balls that are held in or around Vienna come into the category of White Tie Balls. These are the über- formalised affairs usually held in venues like the Imperial Palace Hofberg or other very important places. You might also know them as a ‘Top Hat and Tails’ type of event. The issue of what to wear is most definitely prescribed.

Men must wear full evening dress (unless they are members of the Armed Forces, in which case full dress uniform with badges and braids may be acceptable – though this usually only applies to Officers and those who have been decorated). Full evening dress includes:

  • gardenia flower

    photo : Don Kennedy

    black tail coat also known as a dress coat, which is cut away sharply at the front. This must hug the figure and be worn open – it only has dress buttons for show, so there’s no option!

  • the trousers are cut high to meet the cut away of the front of the coat, which should cover the waistband. They’re worn with braces not a belt, so that there is no disruption to the sleek lines of your manly figure
  • the waistcoat must be white and not show beneath the line of the coat at the front – though you might get away with wearing it about 1-2 cm below the line of the cut away of the coat, because in the 19th century when the style was popular gentlemen wore them a little longer. Besides, if everything is cut short and high, you’ll end up with it all under your armpits – most uncomfortable I would have thought!
  • white bow-tie with a white winged collar shirt – preferably one that detaches
  • optional extra a boutonnière – a single flower or bud for those not in the know. This is usually a gardenia, but anything small and white will do
  • small, discreet dress watch with a black wristband (see above comment about your all-action wrist watch)
  • an optional pair of white gloves, which are worn when dancing and removed when dining.

Truth to tell, I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do with the gloves at all other times – except don’t stick them in your top pocket!

Formal Ball Gowns

Formal Ball gowns for women follow the simple rule, the bigger and more glamorous the better. These dresses are also known as Court wear, as most Balls were held at Court until the 18th century and were the exclusive prerogative of the affluent and courtiers only. Peasants had their parties, which were a much less grand affairs – though no doubt just as much fun!

pearl tiara

photo : Shelley Panzarella

Traditionally these garments were full-skirted and to at least ankle length. They were made of luxurious materials and decorated with exotic sequins, jewels, feathers and other fine fabrics. Today’s versions may be made of man-made fabrics, but silks and satins still hold the heart like no other.

Only quality and vintage jewellery must be worn, along with opera length gloves (the ones that come over the elbow). But it’s bad form to wear a wrist watch, unless this is bejewelled and looks like a bracelet. Shoes should be for dancing, with ballerina style being particularly preferred - think comfort!

And a word of warning – only married women wear a tiara and then only if the Ball is held anywhere other than a hotel.

Just a Thought

The Viennese Ball season starts on New Year’s Eve and runs right through to the summer months. Should you wish to get your dancing shoes on and go show these Balls a bit of your best bopping, it’s better to start planning your outfit sooner rather than later. Make sure you don’t fall foul and receive an Austrian admonishment!

Needless to say, I won’t be going to any Viennese Balls. My cheapie from the charity shop wouldn’t pass muster. Not to mention my genuine plastic beads from the bargain basement!

Chalet Lowonahill is an all-season, rustic style holiday home in Styria. It’s the ideal place for you to discover the delights of all 9 Austrian provinces. To find out more, simply click here.


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