In Austria, there is a special New Year’s tradition: every year on January 1st, people are glued to their TVs and watch the New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It is an event Austrians love to watch – even those who are not the usual classical music aficionados. The concert today is broadcast worldwide and what is lesser known is its close link to fashion. Big names such as Christian Lacroix, Valentino and Vivienne Westwood have designed the costumes for the State Ballet for the videos of the TV broadcast.
You can also watch my video here:
The New Year’s Concert Explained
Before we dive into the designs, let’s explore the history of the concert. Today, it is being broadcast in 90 countries and the “Golden Hall”, the Musikvereinssaal, has become a major tourist attraction because of it. The origins of the concert date back to the Strauss family, the famous composers; you may know the “Blue Danube”, for example. The Vienna Philharmonics closely worked with the Strauss brothers and they held several concerts together. The first New Year’s Concert has a darker side to it: it was held in 1939 – at the height of the Nazi dictatorship and the Second World War and it was also used for Nazi propaganda. After the war and until the 1980s, the Philharmonics worked with three conductors on a more permanent basis. From 1980 onwards, the orchestra decided to invite a different world-famous conductor every year – Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Ricardo Muti and Christian Thielemann are just some examples. Until today, the works of the Strauss family dominate the concert programme.
Over time, more and more people watched the TV broadcast – in Austria and abroad. In the 1990s, the concert gained international popularity and the videos for the intermission and the ballet parts (usually two) have become an important marketing tool for the Vienna Philharmonics, the State Ballet and Austrian tourism overall. Consequently, the outfits for the ballet dancers have also gained importance. Up until 1998, the ballet collaborated with “traditional” costume designers and until today, it is a mix of these traditional costume designers and big names in fashion.
Before discussing the big names, I would like to highlight some costume designers as their work also deserve some recognition here: Christof Cremer has designed the outfits for multiple New Year’s Concerts and he explained in interviews that he tries to do a lot of research about the details of the historic costumes of the time period the ballet covers and on the basis of his research, he creates something new. For example, he created a mix of evening gowns and ballet costume to allow the outfits to look easy and as if the dancers were floating. This is one major challenge for the designers: There are different requirements when designing for the runway as opposed to creating the costumes for ballet dancers who move a lot.
Designs by Christof Cremer for the New Year’s Concert in 2007.
A personal favourite of mine were the costumes for the New Year’s Concert in 2018 by Jordi Roig. The outfits looked a bit more traditional, but the delicate floral patterns worked really well with the settings of the videos. And this is another important point: The costumes not only have to stand out by themselves but they also have to fit into the overall setting of each video. Emma Ryott also created costumes for several New Year’s Concerts, like the one in 2016.
Famous Designers and the New Year’s Concert
Christian Lacroix 1998, 2000 & 2021
It all started in 1998 with Christian Lacroix, a major designer of the late 1980s and 1990s. He created the costumes for three New Year’s Concerts – 1998, 2000 and 2021. It was probably not a coincidence that Lacroix was asked for this collaboration – Lacroix was not only a major designer at the time but he also created many outfits for the Opéra in Paris. Hence, he knew about the requirements to make fashion work for ballet.
Unfortunately, I could not find pictures from 1998, I found a video by the Italian broadcasting channel Rai (see below). (The quality is not the best, unfortunately, we cannot see the details of the costumes.)
There is video from the New Year’s Concert in 2000 (see below). Again, given that this was the start of the internet, the quality is limited. But we can get the idea: These costumes were truly beautiful. The black and white base of the dresses was the same for every dancer – only the colourful parts were different with orange for the main dancer. It was perfect to ring in the new millennium and it also reflected the overall mood of the time: the setting in a Baroque Palace reflected the past, while the outfits looked into the future: they were simple and yet elegant, maybe even futuristic. The bright colours were a major fashion trend at the time.
Unfortunately, I was not a big fan of his creations for 2021. The purple and the pink versions looked nice in the video and it is clear what Lacroix tried to do: He is famous for bright colours and for balloon skirts. Both he tried to reference but it felt a bit forced. Furthermore, some of the colour combinations were questionable. But his flapper-style costumes for the same year were very elegant and chic and reflected the designer much better than the other group of outfits.
2010 was major fashion moment in Vienna because none other than the Italian designer Valentino created the costumes for the New Year’s Concert. Valentino was already retired by then, but he came back from his retirement to work on this project. He created dresses in tulle in different colours from grey, to blush, to pink and also one in his signature Valentino red. When looking at the press pictures today, the outfits may look a bit “much” – or we could even say a bit tacky. But when you watch the video for the Morgenblätter Waltz by Strauss (the Morning Leaves Waltz), you will see that they worked really well in the setting of the marble architecture and the painting galleries of the Art History Museum in Vienna.
Valentino himself said that he always designed by considering that the garments only come to life once there is movement in them. This is even more true for the costumes for ballet dancers. He also said that he was very moved when he saw the dancers in his garments. I think the videos with his designs are some of the most beautiful productions over the years. It is immediately clear that Valentino was behind the costumes – the tulle, the colours, the flowers. It was a successful collaboration because it went beyond mere branding or use of previous runway looks. It felt natural and took into account the requirements of the dancers. was a version for the stage rather than the runway.
Vivienne Westwood & Andreas Kronthaler
And here comes one of my personal favourites. I am biased but I am just such a big fan of Vivienne Westwood, therefore, I was really excited about her designs for the New Year’s Concert in 2014. Similar to the previously mentioned work approach of costume designer Christof Cremer, Vivienne Westwood and her husband and creative director Andreas Kronthaler (who, by the way, is Austrian) took the historic location of the ballet videos as inspiration. They then mixed this historic opulence with references to their own designs, collections and brand-DNA. Therefore, the costumes of the dancers for the polka part were made from Scottish tartan – one of Westwood’s signature materials – while the five couples for the waltz were dressed in classic and elegant evening outfits.
Westwood was famous for her bridal couture and evening gowns and created a group of beautiful dresses.
Gregor Pirouzi, who represented the label in Vienna at the time, said in an interview that the challenge was to understand what is actually possible to marry a high-performance sport like ballet and fashion to create something which will look beautiful in the videos.
Vivienne Westwood’s unconventional costumes incorporating Scottish tartan, a signature of her brand.
The tartan-outfits probably shocked some people. One thing we need to bear in mind here: the New Year’s Concert has a long tradition, it is not one of the most progressive cultural events. There is also a lot of nostalgia involved and the viewers were used to see traditional costumes – beautiful, flowy dresses for the female dancers and suits for the male dancers. But it would not have been Vivienne Westwood, if it had not been shocking – it was punk, but it still respected the event and the historic setting.
Elfenkleid & Petar Petkov 2015
In 2015, it was the first time that Austrian-based fashion designers were asked to collaborate with the concert. The label Elfenkleid and Petar Petkov designed the outfits for the videos celebrating major anniversaries of the year: 650 years of the University of Vienna, 200 of the Technical University and 150 of the famous Ringstrasse, the major boulevard around the first district. Elfenkleid is a Vienna-based label and it was known for their bridal gowns. They were among the first to move away from opulent gowns – and their loose and minimalist style was reflected in their creations for the concert as well. This was a stark contrast to the previous Vivienne Westwood and their designs came closer to the images viewers expected from the New Year’s Concert.
The outfits by Austrian label Elfenkleid used for the video to celebrate 650 years of the University of Vienna.
The second designer was Petar Petrov. Originally from Bulgaria, he came to Vienna to study fashion and founded his womenswear label in 2009 and the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Hailey Bieber, Emily Blunt and Kerry Washington are on his client list. His style is very clean, modern and he is known for his signature cuts and shapes. His designs for the New Year’s concert were mainly in black and white with the exception of one green outfit for a female dancer.
Costumes by Petar Petrov for the New Year’s Concert in 2015.
Arthur Arbesser 2019 & 2022
Another Austrian designer was Arthur Arbesser who grew up in Vienna and studied at Central Saint Martins College in London. He is known for his passion for geometry and strict lines – which also hints at his hometown’s Jugendstil (the Austrian equivalent of Art Déco) and the Wiener Werkstätte. Arbesser runs his own label and also works as a consultant for other fashion brands. In 2015 he was awarded the LVMH prize.
Some of Arbesser’s creations for the New Year’s Concert in 2022.
His creations for the 2019 concert were two-fold: one group of outfits was more romantic and traditional with lots of tulle and feathers. He also incorporated geometric shapes. In group pictures, the designs for this first group may feel a bit random. (He also added a white dress with black polka dots and one with a harlequin fabric which did not match the other three tulle dresses.) I preferred the second group with a very modern take not only on the colourful but minimalist and rather short outfits for the female dancers but also the blue suits for the male dancers. It was something we had not seen before at the concert. The men’s outfits look like the sleek suits of Italian men would in Milan’s financial district and they could be a hint at the city where Arbesser runs his label.
For 2022, Arbesser opted for classic fabrics – with the exception of one more eclectic black and white print. He was inspired by the locations for the videos – Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna and its rose garden. Furthermore, the personalities of the dancers themselves were a major influence for his designs. He said that he wanted to emphasize their character by “colour, material and cut”. As a group and in pictures, the outfits do not look cohesive, but in the videos they made a lot of sense. I especially liked the green dress for dancer Rebecca Horner – it looks really simple, but the effect of the colour and the movement made it really special.
Susanne Bisovsky 2024
Let’s end this article with the most recent design contributions by Austrian Susanne Bisovsky. This year, Bad Ischl is one of Europe’s Cultural Capitals. It is very close to the very popular Hallstatt and it used to be the summer residence of the Austrian Emperor and his famous wife Empress Sisi. The town’s historic heritage and Empress Sisi influenced the ballet productions for 2024 and, consequently, also Bisovksy’s designs.
In an interview, Bisovsky said that this collaboration with the New Year’s Concert was a childhood dream come true. Like so many Austrians, she grew up watching the concert and admiring the designs and dreamed that one day she would design the dancers’ outfits. She also mentioned that it is a bigger challenge to create garments for ballet dancers than for the runway or opera productions. Bisovsky already had experience in creating outfits for the State Ballet and knew that the movements of ballet dancers are extreme and the designs have to keep their shape, ease and grace. She also mentioned that there were certain guidelines she had to keep in mind: As the concert is broadcast worldwide, there are certain do’s and don’t’s – the last thing the production team wants is an outcry over the outfits. For example, the panties of the female dancers have to be covered. Furthermore, she was briefed by the director and camera team about the effects on camera. It may sound like a cliché but the camera loves glitter and 3D-embroideries. Bisovsky incorporated this feedback and also collaborated with the Austrian company Swarovski to achieve this glamorous effect.
In the first video Empress Sisi in her later stages of life looks down to the park from the balcony of her Palace in Bad Ischl and dreams of the times when she was young. She wears a matronly black dress reflecting the fashion of the 19th century when the Empress lived. The signature lace immediately signals that it is a Bisovsky-design. The “young” Sisi dances in a black short dress with the signature Bisovsky flowers and colours. I personally loved the designs for the second video. Even though the blue dress for the main dancer was a bit too “much for me”glittery”, the other ensembles were stunning, especially when you looking at the details. I am a big fan of Susanne Bisovsky and this just cemented my view of her as a designer. Bisovsky opted for glittery black outfits for the men to let her designs for the women stand out. I have to admit, I did not like those too much but I can live with them because her dresses were stunning. Bisovsky was inspired by Czech fairy tales and she said that in times like these, she wanted to create something beautiful and I think she succeeded in that.
 Vienna Philharmonics 2023
 Salsa und Tango 2023a.
 Salsa und Tango 2023b.
 Die Presse Online 2023.
 Krone Online 2023.
 Petar Petrov 2023.
 Arthur Arbesser 2023.
 Vienna State Opera 2023.
 Der Standard 2023.
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Die Presse Online, Geruescht ins neue Jahr, last accessed on 13 January 2023.
Krone Online, Die Oper traegt 2014 Vivienne Westwood, last accessed on 13 January 2023.
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Salsa und Tango, Neujahrskonzert 2017 Wiener Philharmoniker, Walzer, Sisi-Schloss-Ballett, last accessed on 13 January 2023.
Salsa und Tango, Neujahrskonzert 2018 Wiener Philharmoniker, Ballett und Riccardo Muti, last accessed on 13 January 2023.
Vienna Philharmonics, New Year’s Concert. Tradition and History, last accessed on 13 January 2023.
Vienna State Opera, Neujahrskonzert 2022, last accessed on 13 January 2023.
Picture Sources Title Image
This article is based on the personal, views, experiences and research of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the organisations and people mentioned above.