There’s no “California casual” at a Viennese ball.
Me, opt out of a fancy dress occasion? Never. Hailing from southern California, I pined for fur coats and sequins while the other girls were cutting their jeans into shorts and slipping into wetsuits. So, when I received an invitation to my first real-live ball in Austria, I accepted fervently — but without knowing exactly what I was going to wear.
No matter. I was ready to be positively enchanted by the whole experience. The daydreaming began.
In the months that elapsed between deciding to go and actually getting onto the plane, I realized something crucial. Telling people you’re going to a ball in Vienna feels like announcing an engagement to a room full of single people. It’s impossible not to sound smug. “Oh, we’re headed to the ball ...” “Oh, my fiancé and I …” Of course they are both exciting, happy events. People should be glad for you. But people also question whether your head is on straight.
In either case, the million-dollar question quickly arises: “So what are you going to wear?”
Great question. Cue brides and ball-goers wringing their wrists in panic.
Fortunately for me, I possess my fair share of dress-up clothes. Unfortunately for me, I did not pack any ball gowns into my two suitcases when I moved out to Germany last September. Be practical, I told myself, as visions of backpacking — not waltzing — danced through my head.
And, fancy though I may be, I’m also a gal on a budget. Splurging on a deluxe ball gown, while crazy-tempting, was just not in the cards. Did I fret and pout as I came across stunning dress after stunning dress that was out of my price range? Okay, yes. A little. Just until a week or so before the ball.
A week or so before the ball?!? Admittedly, I procrastinated on my dress search. There may have been lingering under trees in the hopes little birds would toss silver and gold dresses (with matching silk and silver slippers) down, guaranteeing I’d be the belle of the ball. We’re in fairy tale country out here, after all.
Finally, in my last-minute dress-hunt panic, it wasn’t a bird but an angel with a German accent and pretty blonde hair who saved me. She directed me to Peek & Cloppenburg, the German Nordstrom’s, where I found The One. Sparkly. Floor-length. Ruched and draped to perfection. Not a puffy ball gown, but an evening gown that fit the dress code perfectly. And had a price tag I could just live with.
The big moment was nigh. Who would be at this ball? And more importantly, what would they be wearing?
In the Vienna hotel room, I hairsprayed and polished and adorned until the bling was undeniable. The husband shined his patent leather shoes and adjusted his bow tie. We were as fabulous as we could muster. But would it be enough?
The taxi dropped our group off at the Officer’s Ball at Vienna’s Hofburg Palace at approximately 8:30pm. Men in full military dress scampered about, helping ladies out of cars and ushering them up the red-carpeted steps. We found our way into the mass of bodies clambering to enter through the imperial double doors. It wasn’t until we ascended the main staircase, cameras firing left and right, that I really took in all I saw.
Under magical chandelier light were hundreds upon hundreds of people dressed in their finery. Women in ankle-length gowns, plunging necklines, satin and lace. Debutantes in their white dresses, texting boyfriends and blinking back tears. The dapperest tuxedoed men alongside military officers spangled in medals, ribbons, and sashes. A personal favorite: A mysterious woman in a voluminous black skirt made entirely of feathers.
Before long, my own state of affairs took a back seat to the kaleidoscopic ebullience around me. We faded through the crowd and planted ourselves where we could see the opening ceremony. Professionals waltzed, swung, and pirouetted their way across the main floor, priming it for our clumsy feet as if to bless us with a pleasant evening of dancing. The debutantes — now with their game faces on — waltzed in perfect harmony with their dates.
Finally, the ball was declared open, and we took to the dance floor.
Part of me wants to say that we danced all night. That somebody found the glass slipper. That princes proposed to peasant girls, who went on to become noble princesses. But the reality was that our dresses began to itch. Our shoes started to hurt. The second and third 10 euro drinks began to bruise our pocketbooks.
We did dance for a good part of the night. We laughed and sipped scotch and wandered wide-eyed through the palace halls. But as the evening wore on, my rose-tinted glasses began to malfunction, and humanity shone through. A ball, it struck me, is just a bunch of people dressed a certain way for tradition’s sake. There’s nothing inherently magical about a dress, a tux, or even a palace. Special as it is to attend a Viennese ball, nobody casts a spell over the evening that makes it perfect.
Despite how time will undoubtedly reshape my experience of the ball, I know I’ll remember a few things with precision: that I took part in an honorable tradition; that I abided by the dress code; and that eventually, I forgot all about what I was wearing and just had fun.
What is better than being the belle of the ball? Keeping your riches in your bank account and having a blast no matter how you’re dressed.
Perhaps, also, simply the anticipation leading up to the event.
(And hopefully the memory, too.)