Photos from Vienna's Life Ball: A Night of Costumes and Charity to Fight HIV

Vienna, Austria is home this year to two huge HIV/AIDS events, both in their eighteenth year: the World AIDS Conference, and the Life Ball. The World AIDS Conference is taking place all this week, and we'll be bringing you coverage of the latest developments there in the next few days. The annual Life Ball, which is Europe's largest HIV/AIDS benefit, was held on Saturday to coincide with the conference. The Life Ball is an incomparable event, an evening of glamor, costumes, music and dancing, all in the service of a serious commitment to raising funds for and awareness about HIV/AIDS. The ball is a year in the making, and an astonishing feast for the senses. For anyone who has never been to the Life Ball, we've put together a slideshow from this year's event. Let us just say—the costumes were incredible.

The Life Ball takes place at the Rathaus (town hall) in Vienna, a massive, Gothic-style building which is completely given over to the event, as you see in the photo above. The plaza in front is the site of the red carpet, a debutante's cotillion, an orchestra, and a stage for performances and speeches. There was a complete evening of performances planned, ranging from several theatrical musical acts (one featuring Whoopi Goldberg) to speeches from important politicians—one of whom was former U.S. president Bill Clinton. Unfortunately, the weather intervened. Notice the heavy skies over the Rathaus; about 30 minutes after this photo was taken, and very early in the performances, a tremendous thunderstorm blew in. With the risk of lightning strikes so high, the performances were canceled, and the thousands gathered in the plaza ran for cover.

At any other event, this would be a complete disaster. But the Life Ball is only partly about the events in the plaza; there is simultaneously a huge party going on inside the Rathaus itself, and additional parties in the nearby Burgtheater (the Austrian national theater) and Parliament. So, the cancellation of the performances, while very disappointing to organizers and participants, mostly had the effect of starting the after-parties earlier. Revelers immediately gathered inside the Rathaus and Burgtheater, where the rooms had been transformed into bars and clubs, each with a different theme and no two exactly alike. People danced and mingled, wandering from club to club, as musicians (Patti LaBelle, Suzanne Vega, and others) sang to crowds gathered in various ballrooms.

People at the Life Ball spend a lot of time looking at the other people at the Life Ball, observing the incredible costumes. Each year the ball has a theme; currently, they are in a four-year series focused on the mythical elements. Last year's theme was water; this year's was earth; next year's will be air. Fire is slated for 2012, and sounds downright scary, given how seriously people take these costumes. In the following slideshow, we've put together photos of a few of the remarkable outfits we saw at the Life Ball, and tried to give you a feel for the event. As we'll explain, the costumes are your entry ticket, so you might want to start working on one now for next year.