Wiener Wäschermädelball 2013

As in years past, I have been one of many Wienerinnen who dolls herself up to take part in the fairy tale of Ball season, dancing and frolicking until the early morning hours. Vienna’s ball season always opens with a waltz on New Year’s and ends with the search for lost shoes at Easter. But what happens at a ball stays at the ball – at least, that’s what I thought.

As I entered the Etablissement Gschwandner, the venue for this year’s Wiener Wäschermädelball (the Ball of the Viennese Laundresses), I was looking fabulous (I thought) in a pale orange strapless gown.

Little did I know, this would be no normal ball. There was an obvious (but not obligatory) dress code. Laundresses in white bonnets and off-the-shoulder peasant blouses, tucked into ruffled aprons beamed alongside their escorts, in knickerbockers, button vests and newsie caps. My cavalier felt overdressed in his dinner jacket, as the ballroom filled with deep necklines, petticoats, knee-length corduroy trousers and undershirts.

Wiener Wäschermädelball: a different kind of ball | Photo: Philippe Schennach

Wiener Wäschermädelball: a different kind of ball | Photo: Philippe Schennach

We needed an alibi. Instead of being one of the many labourers of the 19th century Waschsalons, we decided we more aptly represented the nobility, whose (dirty) laundry was getting washed. Although no one likes to “wash dirty linen in public”, there we were… and we hoped this would turn out to be a gentle wash cycle!

The ball revolved around damsels with hawker’s trays selling cigars to the sound of the live band The Cotton Lickers. Everyone was swinging and tapping to jazzy swing tunes from the 20s and 30s, not waltzing, but spinning non-stop. Increasingly out of control. This was going to be a different kind of ball.

Above my head, clotheslines were strung with a variety of underwear in bright colours. Regretfully, they weren’t the frilly kind, no Agent Provocateur here, but perhaps the pink lights blurred my vision: Rose-coloured glasses don’t always make the world prettier.

Still feeling out of place, I headed for the ladies room, where I caught a few laundresses trying to remove wine stains. Very authentic. Although the indoor temperature didn’t exceed 30 degrees, everyone’s outfits seemed to shrink.

At midnight, the sweaty ladies had some competition from a burlesque dancer, whose nudity was far too short-lived to distract me (or anyone else) from the risqué decolletage in the crowd. In fact, most of the laundresses had clearly left their corsets at home… very distracting.

“Maybe they’re hoping to grab one from the clotheslines at the end of the event,” my cavalier smirked. “It may be washday, but that just won’t wash!” We both giggled.

However, I was bent on helping at least one of them get dressed. So according to my role, I needed to score some 19th century high society undies, that might have been technically mine, not the Wäschermädel’s. I mounted my companion’s shoulders and pulled down a blue bra… when we were caught by the security guy.

“Hand over the bra, please,” he said, very politely but firmly. Out-maneuvered (but never out-classed!) I handed it over with as much dignity as I could muster.

This unorthodox ball ended like any other, with shoeless women, sweat-soaked men and wine-stained garments – just right for the world of the Wiener Waschermädel. Some heads had switched from gentle- to spin-cycle as they teetered onto the streets of the 17th District.

They say the most memorable days usually end with the dirtiest clothes, and after I washed the night out of my hair I can only agree.

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