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The belle of the balls

Prominent ball guests at the 'Lambert Hofer junior' workshop in Vienna

Author: Günter Kaindlstorfer

Olga Hofer is swimming in gold. The owner of the costume and evening wear rental company 'Lambert Hofer junior', located near the Vienna State Opera, sits in her workshop amidst gold-coloured costumes and affixes several golden pheasant feathers to a glamorous feather collar that is to give a brash costume the ultimate pizzazz.
When it comes to ball attire, 'Lambert Hofer junior' is one of Vienna’s most in-demand outfitters. For weeks Olga Hofer’s workshop has been working at top speed - the Life Ball is approaching. It is one of some 450 ball events in the Austrian capital which does not have just four seasons in the year but a fifth as well, the ball season. In addition to the many elegant, venerable balls that celebrate a cultural tradition extending back to imperial times, there are also more modern interpretations which combine youthful cheerfulness with social concerns.
It’s all about being colourful
“At the Life Ball, it’s all about being colourful,” explains the trained milliner. “People want flamboyant, original costumes.” 'Lambert Hofer junior' makes every wardrobe-related wish come true, although the ambience at most of the city’s balls is more formal than at the Life Ball. Plácido Domingo, Richard Burton, Yul Brynner, Mel Ferrer and Klaus Maria Brandauer have all, at one time, commissioned Olga Hofer’s workshop to tailor tailcoats, tuxedos and sports jackets for them.

Tailcoats for the UN Secretary-General

  • The studio © Österreich Test / Rainer  Fehringer The studio © Österreich Test / Rainer Fehringer

Recently she even helped the UN Secretary-General out of a wardrobe crisis. Ban Ki-moon was visiting Vienna at the invitation of Austrian Federal President Heinz Fischer, whom he was to accompany to the culminating event of the city’s carnival season, the Opera Ball. Unfortunately, the UN chief was unaware of the ball’s strict dress code. At Vienna’s very glamorous balls, a tailcoat or at least a tuxedo is obligatory for men.

Olga Hofer sprang into action. The “queen of tailcoats” rushed to the Hotel Bristol, where Ban Ki-moon was staying, measured the UN Secretary-General and delivered the rental tailcoat within a day. A photograph in the fitting room testifies to a successful transaction. The UN chief beams into the camera in his perfectly fitting Lambert Hofer junior tailcoat – with an enormous medal on his chest.

“In Germany a man can even go to an elegant ball in a black suit, but in Vienna that is an absolute no-go.”

Olga Hofer in her studio © Österreich Test / Rainer  Fehringer Olga Hofer in her studio © Österreich Test / Rainer Fehringer Olga Hofer, 'Lambert Hofer junior's' owner

“In September we are already starting to feel the ball season approaching,” says Olga Hofer. As soon as the summer holidays are over, the first orders for tailcoats to be worn at the Opera Ball start to come in, and when things really turn serious, at the height of Vienna’s carnival season, the jostling crowds in the company’s premises on Margaretenstrasse rival those on the dance floor of the Vienna State Opera just before the midnight quadrille.

“Vienna’s ball tradition is unique,” says Olga Hofer, who has run the costume and evening wear rental company in the city’s fourth district by herself since the death of her husband several years ago. “In Germany a man can even go to an elegant ball in a black suit, but in Vienna that is an absolute no-go. A tux is the minimum – tails are better.” So each year Frau Hofer and her team of tailors help provide suitable tailcoats to countless desperate gentlemen, enabling them to cut a dashing figure at Vienna’s most exclusive balls.

Security in tails
Frau Hofer not only handles time pressure with aplomb; she also finds the perfect solution for even the most unusual challenges. Like in the case of the brawny men from a special Vienna police unit. When they are assigned to provide security for high-level politicians at the Opera Ball and other exclusive social events, they must comply with the dress code as well, meaning tailcoats. “These gentlemen are generally quite muscular,” reports Olga Hofer, “and here I am particularly meticulous with my measurements – after all, their tailcoats should fit perfectly.”

Dapper and debonair

  • Lambert-Hofer junior © Österreich Test / Rainer  Fehringer Lambert-Hofer junior © Österreich Test / Rainer Fehringer
  • Lambert-Hofer junior © Österreich Test / Rainer  Fehringer Lambert-Hofer junior © Österreich Test / Rainer Fehringer
  • Olga Hofer in her studio © Österreich Test / Rainer  Fehringer Olga Hofer in her studio © Österreich Test / Rainer Fehringer
  • Lambert-Hofer junior © Österreich Test / Rainer  Fehringer Lambert-Hofer junior © Österreich Test / Rainer Fehringer

The legendary dance master Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer

  • Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer © Tanzschule Elmayer Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer © Tanzschule Elmayer



An interview with the legendary Viennese dance teacher Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer

Austria Info: What distinguishes Viennese ball culture from dance events in, say, New York or Frankfurt am Main?

THOMAS SCHÄFER-ELMAYER: The biggest difference is down to the Viennese, who are extremely experienced ball-goers and who know that it’s the ball guests themselves who are the most important people at a ball. Viennese ball-goers know exactly what’s required at a ball: good cheer, elegant clothes, charming behaviour, cultivated conversation and a love of dancing. Furthermore, any traditional Viennese ball is always opened by a committee of debutantes and their partners and features at least one quadrille, an old French dance, in which everyone can participate.

Austria Info: Is this not usually the case abroad?

THOMAS SCHÄFER-ELMAYER: In other countries many balls are not opened by debutantes and their partners. The quadrille for everyone is virtually unknown abroad. I’ve only ever seen it at the “Ball of the Austrians” in Bavaria, where the quadrille is known as the Francaise.  

Austria Info: You run one of the most illustrious dance schools in Vienna. How enthusiastic about dancing are young people today?

THOMAS SCHÄFER-ELMAYER: Recreational habits have changed massively and unfortunately that has also had a negative impact on interest in dance. The new time thieves - such as Facebook - take up a lot of young people’s time these days, which of course is hurting dance schools. But for many families, going to the Tanzschule Elmayer, has been an indispensable and integral part of being young for many generations. Each year we also succeed in instilling an enthusiasm for the tradition of Viennese balls in the young people who come to our dance courses. The “Elmayer-Kränzchen”, our ball held on Shrove Tuesday in the Hofburg, is opened by the biggest debutantes committee of any ball. In 2015, 520 young people took part in the opening ceremony.

Austria Info: What’s your own favourite dance?

THOMAS SCHÄFER-ELMAYER: The Viennese waltz of course.

Austria Info: What is the mark of a good dancer?

THOMAS SCHÄFER-ELMAYER: A good dancer should always recognise which dance matches the music that is being played, should dance in time, show consideration for their partner and her dancing ability and shouldn’t show off on the dance floor.

Stress, lack of consideration and bad moods can be left at home.”

Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer

Austria Info: What is absolutely unacceptable at a ball?

THOMAS SCHÄFER-ELMAYER: Any kind of stress, a lack of consideration for others and grumpiness are all inappropriate. In addition, it is absolutely essential for the festive mood - regardless of the temperature - that all guests wear elegant ball clothing and do not change until they leave the ball.

Austria Info: Casting off your inhibitions, dancing on the table and throwing your tailcoat into the crowd - that’s an absolute no go?

THOMAS SCHÄFER-ELMAYER: It would have one advantage. It’s the quickest way to get straight from the Hofburg to the drying-out cell.

The most exquisite balls

  • Opera ball © Österreich Test / Lois Lammerhuber Opera ball © Österreich Test / Lois Lammerhuber
  • Life Ball © Harald Klemm Life Ball © Harald Klemm
  • Vienna Confectioners' Ball © Ballguide Fotoservice Vienna Confectioners' Ball © Ballguide Fotoservice
  • Fête Impériale © Fête Impériale Fête Impériale © Fête Impériale
  • Coffee-house owners' ball © Österreich Test Coffee-house owners' ball © Österreich Test
  • Graz Opera Ball © Österreich Test / Achim Meurer Graz Opera Ball © Österreich Test / Achim Meurer
  • Vienna State Opera © Österreich Test / Viennaslide Vienna State Opera © Österreich Test / Viennaslide
  • Hofburg Palace, stage for countless balls © Österreich Test / Julius Silver Hofburg Palace, stage for countless balls © Österreich Test / Julius Silver

Where: Vienna State Opera
Once a year the Viennese State Opera transforms into the most theatrical ball room in the entire world. 5,000 paying guests marvel at the opening polonaise, sip at their champagne and watch world-famous acts perform. The waltz enthusiasts from over the entire globe then glide around the crammed parquet in three-four time. This "Ball of all balls" attracts all number of celebrities, from Ban Ki-moon to Naomi Campbell.

Where: Vienna City Hall
The most flamboyant ball in Vienna. Having started off as a charity event for those affected by HIV in 1993, the "Life Ball" has, over the past quarter of a century, developed into one of the most glamorous events of the European LGBT scene. Gay and lesbian chic as well as dancing for a good cause go hand in hand here.

Where: The Musikverein building, Vienna
Those in the know call it Vienna's most exclusive ball. The Vienna Philharmonic orchestra, one of the most famous orchestras in the world, plays to the fantastic backdrop of the Musikverein's golden hall. It is the place to be for members of the sophisticated upper class, who find the Opera Ball beneath them. 

Where: Hofburg Palace, Vienna
The sweetest ball of the season, not only for those with a sweet tooth. Since 1901 the bakers and confectioners have been inviting the town to dance in the imperial settings of the Hofburg palace. Over all the years the lively atmosphere of the ball has garnered much praise. The tombola is an event in its own right, with 3,000 handmade cakes as the prize.

Where: Vienna City Hall
A groovy charity. It would be impossible to conceive of the ball calendar without this annual event. People from all continents come here to dance together in aid of the Viennese "Integrationshaus" charity. Asylum seekers are the DJs, and multi-ethnic bands perform at this ball with a casual dress code.

Where: Spanish Riding School, Vienna
A summer ball with a royal ambience. The Spanish Riding School, home to the noble Lipizzaner, opens up the door for dancing and strolling. The net proceeds of the large summer gala go towards the white stallions. Waltz fans at the Fête Impériale need have no fear of Vienna's notorious summer heat, as there is full air conditioning at the Winter Riding School.
Where: Hofburg Palace, Vienna
The coffee-house owners' ball is hugely popular, and not only with coffee lovers. Every year 6,000 guests make this ball event in the Hofburg Palace to the highlight of the Viennese carnival season. An absolute must of this event is, of course, stopping by at one of the coffee bars.

GRAZ OPERA BALL (German only)
Where: Graz Opera
Grand evening dress and a festival atmosphere. The ball in the Graz Opera - one of the most splendid opera houses in all of Europe - forms the social event in the Styrian capital. Culture also comes into its own here during this raucous occasion, with performances from the Philharmonic Orchestra, ballet dancers and singers. 

Where: Salzburg Congress
Jaunty regional costumes and sturdy calves. Such is the motto of the traditional garb ball of Salzburg's leading Alpine club "Edelweiss-Club". The dresscode is strict - Dirndl dresses for the women and Lederhosen for the men are mandatory. Haimo Falkensteiner, the ball's organisor, has opened the ball for half a century with the very same words: "Let the music commence!"

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