What is it: The Viennese Opera Ball, a white-tie debutante ball in New York City with Austrian flair.
Who tried it: Diana Pearl, PEOPLE writer/reporter
Difficulty: 2/10 — The only thing that’s challenging about attending a glamorous white-tie event is lasting the entire night in heels.
I have a lot of philosophies in life. Among them: Always order the side of fries, naps are important to mental health, and if life hands you the opportunity to get over-the-top dressed up, take it.
So when an invitation to the Viennese Opera Ball landed in my inbox, I quickly read up on the event. Held annually in New York City, it’s the American counterpart to the world-famous Vienna Opera Ball that has taken place annually in Austria since 1814. (The two aren’t formally connected.) Twelve young women were set to make their “debut” at this year’s ball, including a real-life archduchess who is descended from Austria’s now-defunct royal family, the Habsburgs.
I haven’t worn a floor-length gown since my prom nearly eight years ago. As opportunities to wear a formal gown seem to come along once a decade in my life, I knew I didn’t want to buy something that would inevitably sit in the back of my closet for the next 10 years. (Sorry, prom dress.) Instead, I elected to rent a dress, which led me to Armarium, a high-fashion rental site who recently named celebrity stylist Micaela Erlanger (she dresses my favorite, Michelle Dockery!) their fashion director. I filled out their online survey, called the Armibot, which asked me a bunch of questions ranging from my style icons (Kate Middleton, obviously!) to the silhouettes I prefer. Less than 24 hours later, a few options landed in my inbox.
My final choice was a (gorgeous) high-low Prabal Gurung feathered gown with pearl detailing, which arrived the day before the ball. And for a white-tie event, ladies are encouraged to wear opera-length gloves — think Amal Clooney at the 2015 Golden Globes. So, in preparation for the big night, I also ordered a pair of white gloves on Amazon. Yes, I know it’s extra (and a little funny that they’re from Amazon and cost $8), but since I likely will never wear them again, I went for the economical option.
The day of, I headed to Drybar to get a pre-ball blowout. I went for their old-fashioned style, feeling it was fitting for this rather old-fashioned event. Adding my own royal-inspired twist, I ended up putting the curls into a topsy tail ponytail — a favorite style of Princess Kate’s, and one I tried myself during a prior We Tried It experiment. And I did my makeup myself, because if it’s good enough for Kate on her wedding day, it’s more than good enough for me.
Arriving at the event itself, at the Ziegfield Ballroom in N.Y.C., my eyes definitely went a little wide. I hadn’t seen this many men in white tie since the series finale of Downton Abbey.
It wasn’t long before the actual program got started. After a few opening rituals — the Austrian and American national anthems and an incredible opera performance, it was time for the debutantes.
They entered in a procession, all wearing gorgeous white dresses and tiaras. Each had a male escort who led them into the ballroom. Among the debutantes: Archduchess Isabella von Habsburg, who is the great-great-great granddaughter of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Sissi of Austria. (Away from the ball, she’s an American college student.)
“This one is really special to me because it involves so much of my family,” Isabella, who wore an heirloom tiara and gown for the occasion, told me later during a dance break. “It’s been incredible, but a little nerve-wracking. We worked really hard on the dance.”
After the debutantes’ dance concluded with a waltz, other couples got on the floor to join them. People took a break from the dance floor for dinner (a menu of beef, vegetables and apple strudel) and to watch a number of incredible performances from members of the Metropolitan Opera.
Then it was time for one of the night’s highlights: the midnight quadrille. We all quickly paired up, and luckily, I landed with one of the evening’s escorts, who proved to be an expert. My partner described the quadrille as “Austrian square dancing.” (I don’t disagree: It involves a lot of turning, bowing and trading places with the couple in front of you.)
By the end, I almost felt like I knew what I was doing! That all changed when we did the gallop dance, which had partners make a path to go under with their hands. (Yes, we “galloped” through.)
At this point, it was almost one in the morning and the party was winding down, at least downstairs. Upstairs, there was another buffet, complete with German pretzel, goulash soup and spaetzle. (Slightly stuffed from our earlier feast, I stuck to just a pretzel.) Though the party went on until four in the morning, I had a flight to catch in a few hours, so we left around two.
The Verdict: The Viennese Opera Ball was, without a doubt, the most glamorous event I’ve ever attended. And with epic opera performances and great food — plus the chance to get really, really fancy — I hope it’s one I get to experience again. After all, I need a place to break out my newfound quadrille skills.