Military Ball: What to wear

This is the most frequently asked about question, even for seasoned military spouses. What to wear, what to wear, what to wear? I have been to a few balls while my husband was at West Point but none since he’s graduated, our first is early next year. And I’m really excited, I’ve already picked out my dress!

James and I at my first West Point class event, he’s in the West Point dress uniform, not nearly as nice as the Army Service Uniform of Active Duty Soldiers and Officers.

It is ball season though, so in the spirit of picking out a dress, here are my tips:1. Wear something you are comfortable in. If you hate tulle, don’t buy a dress with lots of tulle. You’ll be wearing this through a long dinner and meeting people so you don’t want to be fussing or itching or whatever. Which brings me to point two…

2. Make sure it fits! Something too small or too big just won’t work. Talk to the salespeople about what looks good on you, or bring along a friend that’ll be brutally honest. Because you don’t want to be falling out or swimming in your gown.

3. Cover the ladies. And the belly button. And your butt. Your date’s boss will be there. And his date. And your date’s subordinates will be there, and their dates. Sure some cleavage is fine but pretend that you’re going to the Golden Globes or Oscars, not the VMAs. Everyone will be looking at your dress, and you want it to be for the right reasons. I once saw a girl whose butt was barely covered. And I still remember it two years later. The girls in dresses that covered their bodies? Well, nope not so much. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing (I can tell you what my friends wore) but you want to be remembered for the right reasons. Like your excellent taste, because you have it! Honestly blending in is not a bad thing. This is a night for your service member and you’re there as support.

4. Look in the formal dress section, not the prom or homecoming section. First of all your date is in their dress uniform, they only pull it out a few times a year, so this is a big deal. Think of it as a tux or 3-piece suit. This is the tricky part, gowns tend to be either prom or mother of the bride. You most likely will need to go to a lot of stores. But it’s worth it. I think shopping for formal dresses in your adult years, before late middle-age, is difficult. Because a happy medium is really hard to find, you want to be fashion forward but not look dated, too young or too old.

Another dress I wore to another West Point class event, I’ve reworn this dress many times to weddings and other formal events

5. I don’t think you have to go for a full-length dress, but don’t wear a mini (see #3). I’ve worn knee length dresses and felt just fine. In fact, since I’m short, I prefer them (saves some money on alterations). The only full-length dress I’ve worn since high school is my wedding gown. Seriously. (And the gown for our next ball, yes I have it planned already, more on that soon.) So, I think you have some leeway here. That being said, full-length is the safest bet.

6. Accessorize well. Less can be more. A friend recently told me that she saw a girl with a great dress, but then she overdid it with a giant patent belt, crazy sparkly heels (not in the good way), way too much makeup, and lots of jewelry. A lot of formal dresses don’t need a lot of accessories. Again, talk to the sales people and some brutally honest friends for advice.

I wish it could be a top 5, but I think 6 covers them all. My newest obsession (and where my next gown is from) is Rent the Runway. No they didn’t ask me to try them out or plug them, this is a 100% honest review: I’ve used them and loved them. Basically you rent a designer gown for a fraction of the cost to buy it. You get two sizes and just return in a pre-paid envelope, no cleaning required. Each dress has fit details to help you figure out if it works on your body type. It is a bit nervewracking not knowing if it’ll fit, honestly renting a long dress I triple checked lengths and my height and shoes in my closet. But I’ve found the reviews and fit info to be pretty spot on. If neither dress fits that you order, you call them ASAP and return the dress within 24 hours to get a credit for your next rental. (This happened to my friend so they really do this!)

This is a dress I rented from Rent the Runway

I’ve had success shopping at Dillard’s, Macy’s and Nordstrom. There are also some great organizations out there helping spouses get dresses as well, such as Cinderella’s Closet. People donate their dresses and they are given to other women who may not be able to afford one.

Those are my tips for picking out a dress for a military gown, What are your military ball gown-shopping tips? Any stores that you suggest to look at? Did I miss anything?

22 responses to “Military Ball: What to wear

  1. I went to a Military Ball once with a very good guy friend of mine who didn’t have a date. I wish I would have read this first because I definitely went with the more fraternity semi formal dress look (thin straps, cleavage, etc.) HOWEVER it was black (classic, at least) and since I wasn’t his wife or even girlfriend maybe it didn’t matter so much, and we had a great time regardless.

  2. I always get my gowns at Macy’s and on the off season. This last summer, I came away with a black gown and a red one–$17 for the black, $25 for the red. Both were originally well over $300 to start. My tip: the name of the event will indicate what you should wear. Balls are formal–to the floor. There is always one girl who comes wearing a cocktail dress, and she sticks out like a sore thumb. Keep it simple–the more flamboyant, the more you’ll stand out. If it’s a dining out, cocktail dress. Open House (especially around the new year): “sunday best.” If it’s still not clear, ask the head of your immediate coffee group, she will know. Someone will always say “wear what you’re comfortable in, even if that’s X,” but I’ve always found I am never comfortable wearing something different than everyone else.

    Which ball are you going to at the beginning of the year? We always go to the Saint Barbara’s Day ball in February πŸ™‚ And I love all of your dresses! )There’s also a place in Tacoma that has discount formal gowns–it’s right down the road from where 512 hits I-5).

  3. Thanks for your feedback ladies (and the shop suggestions!)!

    Jenny–I’m glad you still had fun! Did you drink from the grog?

    And definitely ask FRG leaders for sure (if you’re a spouse and have that connection). One friend was told straight ball gowns by her boyfriend, but I do think that there are formal dresses that aren’t ball gowns.

    We are going to my husband’s battalion ball next year! I’ve heard good things about Saint Barbara’s Day, but we aren’t in a Field Artillery unit, my mom was named after Saint Barbara though, a good name for the daughter of an Artilleryman. πŸ™‚

  4. Jess, I love that you mentioned to think of the Oscars not the VMAs! Totally true! My advice is to look up pictures of who you define as the “classiest” (not the most interesting, sexiest, daring, complicated) celebrity for formal wear and get some ideas. See how they accessorized, did their hair, etc. You want to find a dress that makes YOU look good, not a dress that may grab (the wrong) attention and just so happens to have a person in it. Plus I find having a solid color or ONE detail such as a brooch, ruffles, cinched, interesting neck line (not all of the above) make for the best dresses and best looking couples. Having a glittery belt, a huge pin, a crazy floral pattern in 12 colors and a deep neckline where it is always a deep breath away from a boob malfunction… Yes Ive seen this….Take away from what an elegant couple you could look like next to your husband in his dress uniform. I know it can be tempting for some to want everything like what I described because they may be in fashion or whatever but in reality it makes you look like a mess. Picking one of those interesting pieces though can be a great conversation starter and get you a lot of compliments and not make you feel uncomfortable, while all of them just make you look like a Christmas tree.. and people can’t help but remember the Christmas tree at the military ball….

  5. I’ve been to many Seabee Balls in my military career ,17+ years) and have worn my dress uniform or a gown. This year is the first year in about 4 years, that all women service members on my base have been authorized to wear a gown as opposed to their uncomfortable, hot, slightly altered dinner or service dress uniform so I am very excited! I found a great website for my gown. Average price of a gown (they have over 500) is 140.00. They offer every gown in a variety of 20+ colors. You can either order a standard size (2-plus sizes) or you can send them your measurements and they will custom tailor your gown for you. (Tailoring is $16.50). Production and shipping is a bit long (hey, they are making a gown from scratch, custom fitted!) but well worth it. Hope this helps.

    • I’m attending “St. Barbara’s Banquet” with my boyfriend who is in the National Guard this January. On the invitation, it says,

      “UNIFORM: DRESS UNIFORM (White Shirt and Bow Tie)

      I’m not exactly sure what is deemed as a dress or a gown by the military let alone what would be appropriate for this event. Obviously, I will not be wearing anything very revealing and have decided to wear something floor length to be safe, but that’s all I know so far. Is the “poofy” kind of gown what they mean by gown? Would a floor length evening dress (That is modest) suffice? Thank you to anyone with any input and advice!!!

  6. The last dress I wore to a Navy Ball I bought at Ross for twenty five bucks! It was a navy blue halter top, knee length, and the fabric had some shimmery strands woven through it so the light made it change color a bit but it wasn’t something outrageously sparkly. I love that dress! It was perfect for dancing yet still classy enough for a formal event. πŸ™‚

  7. I love the advice. I found a dress that I love. (I am plus size and get depressed searching.) I was curious though if it was ok for a military ball. The neckline worries me. The slit, however, I am having lowered to the knees – so it shouldn’t be a problem. Any input would be appreciated!

    • Beautiful!!! If you feel uncomfortable in the neckline I’d suggest getting that pinned a bit too, since you’re already altering the slit. But it’s really a judgement call on your part. If you feel like you’re falling out in it, look into some alterations, but if you’ve got an awesome bra and feel fairly covered I think you’ll be fine! I have seen a girl whose dress sat about half way down her breasts-not a good look. But this looks nice! Have fun at your ball!

  8. The advice was very helpful. I am attending a ball with a friend and a few months back I bought a dress that I was going to wear to a wedding, but I ended up not going and I could not bring myself to return the dress. I have been dying to find an opportunity to wear it and I thought this could work. I would also love your input on the matter. The woman modeling the dress is quite taller and on me the dress fits nicely body wise (but definitely not as tight), but the dress reaches just below my knees.

  9. Interesting. It seems so very different from our own balls. I am a Native Brit who married an Austrian officer, and we have this grand ball for all the officers at the Imperial Palace every year:
    4,000 people, 14 rooms, debutantes, procession of dignitaries, lasts unil 4 in the morning, etc.
    I gather that your events are not the same? Balls here are all about dancing, mostly ballroom, because it’s a ball, and socialising with people. The ball doesn’t start until 9:30, so you have dinner on your own before, a snack at the buffet, and then an early breakfast in a cafe at 5 in the morning?

    How strict is the dress code at your events? Do ladies really wear ball gowns, which is a specific style, or just long evening dresses? What about civilian men? In Austria, the rules are stringent: white tie and tails or black tie. A suit will not suffice.

    • I wouldn’t say that it’s really strict, you won’t be turned away. It’s mainly long evening dresses in the style that you’d like. Civilian men wear a nice suit or tux, some balls and events are more formal than others.

      Sounds like a great ball in Austria!

  10. I need some help! I will be attending a military ball (I think that’s what it is anyway) here in SD in January and I’m really just not sure what to wear! I’m 18 and I’ll be going with my boyfriend who is 19, not sure if that info matters but I thought it might. I don’t think it requires a long formal, I was thinking something like a cocktail dress but the last thing I want is to stick out like a sore thumb so if there’s any advice or insight you could give me, it would be greatly appreciated! Thank you! Also, it’s for the National Guard, that’s the branch he is in!

  11. Thank you for the informative article; it was very helpful. However, I would like to know about what you would think of a Military Ball dress that looks like this: { } (sorry for the long URL) Of course, this model is very tall, while I am not, so it is not so short on me- it ends two-to-two and a half inches above the knee, at the most, and appears modest on my form. Do you think this would be acceptable for a Junior ROTC event?

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