Author’s note: For the purposes of this article, I use the term “date” to refer to spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, fiancé(e)s, friends, etc. This article first appeared on this site in 2012. Due to its popularity, the article has been re-worked and updated to include frequently asked questions.
Across all military branches, there is one event that gets the ladies especially excited — The Military Ball. Whether it’s the chance to wear a beautiful gown, pick out sparkly jewelry or enjoy an evening of tradition, most military spouses and significant others are excited for the ball.
I’ve been to six balls thus far. Two in college and four since my husband has been active duty. He’s a Soldier, so I can really only speak to how the Army functions, but bear with me. These tips can work for any branch.
DO pay attention to the uniform your service member is wearing and base that on your own attire. If the service member is wearing a formal uniform with a bowtie, then the date should be wearing formal attire. There is significant debate amongst the military community about what formal female date attire means. Does it mean floor-length gowns? Does it mean you must have straps? It depends where you’re getting your information. Formal used to mean floor-length, but that doesn’t stand anymore. Feel free to wear floor-length, but don’t feel obligated. Something shorter that falls at the knee or below the knee is still formal (think tea-length dresses like what were popular in the 1950s), but no shorter. For male dates, you’re fairly easy. You can wear a tuxedo with a black tie if you like, or you can wear a dark suit with a dark tie. If you are a service member and it isn’t your unit’s event, you can go in uniform or wear formal attire. If you wear your uniform, ensure you’re wearing the appropriate pieces.
DON’T show too much skin. Think about the dresses as you have them on. Does it show too much skin? Do you get a clear look down the dress or does it pull too high if you bend over? Some skin is fine, but keep it focused on one area only. A little cleavage is fine, but then keep the dress long and the back mostly covered. If you have a high slit (no more than mid-thigh), cover up the chest and back. If you’re showing off your back, don’t show your cleavage and keep the dress long (make sure the back doesn’t go down too far). If you show too much, it takes away from the formality. And no cutouts.
DO make sure the clothing fits. Dates should always be sure their clothing fits. Male date’s shirts that are too tight will create gaps between the buttons and a tight jacket will be too restrictive. If it’s too big, your pants may fall down or you’ll look too messy. A similar line of thinking goes for female dates. Fitted gowns are great, but there is a difference between fitted and tight. I can sit, dance, bend and move easily in a fitted gown, but I can’t do that in a tight gown. Tight dresses are restrictive and when a dress is too tight and the seams bulge or pull, most people can tell. No one can tell if you’re wearing a larger size than usual. If the dress is too tight, don’t worry about going up a size. If you want something fitted that is less restrictive, opt for a jersey knit or mesh dress. These have stretch where you need it, but the fabric will still hold tightly where you don’t. Satin or chiffon fabrics won’t have much stretch if any. All of these fabrics are appropriate in a formal setting.
DON’T choose prom-style dresses. I believe this for a few reasons. First, it won’t fit you if you’re curvy or have a larger bust and hips. Junior’s dresses simply aren’t designed to fit curvier bodies. Second, you’ll look like you’re at the wrong event. Prom dresses often have cutouts, inappropriate color, too much flash and more that take away from a formal dress. Look in the formal sections of your department store.
DO experiment with color. Too often, military ball dates wear dark or muted colored attire. That’s fine if it’s what you like, but you aren’t obligated to wear dark only. You can experiment with colors like red, pink, bright purple, green, etc. The only colors you should stay away from are neons. I often recommend jewel tones (teal, emerald, fuchsia, ruby, etc.) since they tend to match any uniform.
DON’T worry too much about jewelry, hair, shoes or tattoos. Wear what is comfortable to you. If you like sparkly jewelry, wear it. If you don’t wear much jewelry, feel free to skip it. If you want to spend money on your hair for an updo, feel free, but it isn’t required. As long as you comb or brush your hair before the event, you’re good. You want to be comfortable as yourself. Comfort is a major factor for shoes. If you don’t like heels, choose ballet flats or a flat dressy sandal.
Do not wear flip-flops or sneakers. Again, they take away from the formality. High heels are always acceptable, but be sure they are comfortable and you can walk in them. You don’t want to be twisting your ankle or tripping. Male dates should wear a shoe that matches the suit or tuxedo. Men can also wear whatever jewelry (necklaces, watches, rings, bracelets, etc.). Tattoos do not need to be covered unless it makes you more comfortable. I have a tattoo on my wrist that I’ve never covered. You can purchase makeup kits if you don’t want to show tattoos. Facial piercings are up to you. Some people take them out and others leave them in.
DO shop around for an outfit. There’s no reason to shell out hundreds of dollars for an outfit you may never wear again. You can buy great clothes off sale racks, at consignment shops (great place for tuxedos and formal gowns) or in thrift stores. Used dresses are often in as great of shape as new, though they may require a cleaning. I’ve never spent more than $100 on a ball gown. I’ve used Amazon, Dillard’s, J.C. Penney, etc. Try it on before buying in stores or order early enough that you can return for a different size when buying online (check the companies return policy on gowns first!). Some stores now rent designer dresses, but be careful with those. Some rental rates are more than buying your own gown.
DO remember the reason you’re there and pay attention during the traditional areas of the event. While it is fun to get dressed up, the traditional things are the reason you’re there. Pay attention. Stand and follow the flag when it comes in, put your hand over your heart for the National Anthem, stand and read correct responses for toasts and don’t talk while the program speakers are speaking. If you aren’t sure how to do some things, ask your service member or the people at your table.
DON’T stay quiet if you don’t understand something. It’s OK to ask questions! Every branch is different, every branch within each branch is different and every unit is different. They don’t all have the same level of formality. I’ve been to balls with a receiving line (we’ll get to that next) and others without one. Some have seated dinners and others have buffets. Some have guest speakers and others don’t. Some take place at the Battalion/Squadron level and others take place at the Brigade level. If you want to find out more, ask a friend who has been a part of the unit and attended a function before. Your service member may also know if he or she has been to one before.
DO understand how a receiving line works. This is fairly simple. Since my husband is in the Army, I’ll use Army terminology. Insert the proper lingo where needed. The unit commander and spouse, the unit Command Sergeant Major and spouse and any dignitaries and their spouses stand in a line at the entrance to the dining room. A service member wearing gloves, known as the adjutant, stands at the beginning of the line. Your service member gives his/her name and your name to the adjutant. As you and your service member go down the line (dates lead the way) shaking hands, the adjutant will pass your name and it goes down the line like “Whisper Down the Lane.” It doesn’t always translate well or accurately, so sometimes, the people in the line will ask your name as you shake their hand. Provide it (or politely correct it if it’s wrong) and only offer brief small talk. Don’t begin any conversations at this time because others must go through the line. You can save discussions for later. If you’re worried about doing it wrong, stand further back in the line. For my very first ball, I took a spot at the end to watch others and see how it works. It’s much simpler than it may sound.
DON’T worry about using the correct silverware. Really, the service members are used to eating in much less formal settings (sometimes without utensils), so they probably don’t use the correct silverware themselves. Most tables are set simply, but others may be more formal. A good rule of thumb is to start from the outside and work your way in — outside fork for the first fork use, outside spoon for the first spoon use, etc. The silverware above the plate is normally reserved for coffee and dessert, so save them for last. If you forget, don’t worry. Just pick one and use it. No one is judging or grading you.
DO pay attention to how much you drink (if you’re of age). If you want to drink at the event, feel free, but monitor how much you’re drinking. Remember to have a safe plan to get home. With dim lights and loud music toward the end of the night, you may not realize how much you’ve consumed. Try spacing out each drink with a glass or bottle of water to prevent a hangover and embarrassing mistakes. If you simply must have some of the grog (the ceremonial combination of various types of alcohol that tells the unit’s history), only have a small amount. I’ve seen people drink the grog all evening and they pay for it in the morning. Or, like a past ball, they tumble into the grog table and almost break the table. People took photos, and with the advent of social media, you can imagine the embarrassment in the morning.
DON’T sneak drinks if you’re underage. That’s pretty self-explanatory. If you’re caught, you could potentially shut down bar access for the entire event.
DO represent your service member well. You don’t need to be fake, but smile and shake hands as your service member introduces you to people. Don’t drink too much. Don’t dance inappropriately.
DO have fun. Enjoy your time and seeing your service member dressed up in his/her finest. Take pictures, absorb the traditions of the evening, laugh and dance your heart out. Most importantly, remember to be yourself.
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Sarah Peachey is a 20-something journalist from Pennsylvania, back in the Mid-Atlantic after voyages to the Deep South and Southwest. She lives with her husband, toddler and newborn. She began a career in journalism with The Fort Polk Guardian, an installation newspaper, winning three state awards for her work, and she now freelances for military spouse support sites and consults for MilSpouseFest She has a passion for politics and fiery debate. She considers herself a bookworm, pianist, wine enthusiast and crossword addict.