I will be attending [my boyfriend's unit] ball this year for the first time. I asked him what to wear, and his response was, “Well, it’s in April, so that’s the spring, so a short dress right?”
Bless his little heart, you and I both know that’s just not how it works. Still, I’ve spent a great deal of time perusing the internet, and I am having a hard time discerning exactly how formal these military balls are.
The general consensus seems to be that a modest, not overly-prom-ish prom dress is appropriate, but then I also see questions/debates over the the style of gloves to wear. I come from a very traditional Southern family, so I’ve been through Cotillion and had my entrance into society, and I really need to know the specific echelon of formality we’re dealing with here. Otherwise, if my grandmother catches wind of a ball in the works, she will see to it that I show up in her elbow-length white kid gloves.
I don’t want to blindly buy a dress; and I know, whether overdressed or underdressed, if I look like an idiot, it will reflect poorly on him.
One of the reasons you have a hard time figuring out the protocol is that the formality of dress will vary widely from post to post and unit to unit.
Gone is the day when everyone knew exactly what to wear, unfortunately. Fortunately, though, that means you need be less concerned about violating an obscure rule.
Ideally, he connects you with a wife in the unit who can let you know what she plans to wear.
Another guide is what he has been instructed to wear, which is somewhat complicated by the military’s recent changes in dress uniform. The idea is that now soldiers will only have to maintain one dress uniform (a blue service uniform), instead of having Dress Blues and Class A’s (green service uniform). If his unit has not yet phased out the multiple dress uniforms, that may provide a clue as to the formality of an event. Mess Uniform or Dress Blues with Bow Tie (or Class A’s with bow tie for enlisted men) is the most formal (full-length or ball gown), then Dress Blues with four-in-hand (simple full-length or cocktail length dress), then Class A’s (a more simple dress may be appropriate).
In general, though, a full-length gown is most appropriate, with a wrap or shawl if there is a chill in the air. No ball gown or gloves required, though in some more formal units you may see a few.
You will most likely also see ladies in tea-length and cocktail-length formal dresses.
The biggest faux pas is not the dress length but showing up in something too revealing. I can tell this will not be an issue with you–but that is really the only thing I have seen go terribly wrong.
I personally also have a granny (who passed last year, may she rest in peace) who I can hear guiding me as I select formal wear. She is not Southern, but rather New York Jewish, but she would turn in her grave if I wore leather shoes to a formal event. So, I understand the anxiety.
Really, though, these finer distinctions are no longer in regular practice, even in the tradition-minded military, unless perhaps if we are talking a West Point or other academy ball.
What do you think, dear readers? What is proper attire for a military ball? Is a full-length formal gown required? Or is a cocktail dress appropriate? Or do you and your fellow spouses go for the full ball gown and gloves treatment?
Photograph by Michael Oh.