A Military Ball is a glamorous event of ceremony, tradition, and decorated uniforms. Service members are in dress blues or Class A uniform and dates/spouses attend in formal finery.
What is a military ball?
A military ball is an annual event attended by officers and enlisted service members along with their respective guests/dates. The host may be a branch of ROTC in high school or an active military unit for career service personnel. There is a social hour, receiving line, dinner, and recognition/award events.
While at first glance, a military ball may seem like Prom or a formal wedding, there are some very specific fashion rules at the military ball.
Military balls are white tie formal events, meaning that female guests should wear formal, floor length gowns. All dresses should be long enough to cover your ankles. Column dresses with back or thigh slit should not be higher than mid-thigh.
A good rule is to focus on classy and conservative, and avoid anything too casual or trashy.
As with any formal outfit, dress to your body type!
Embrace the empire waist, drop waist, column dress, ball gown or whatever shape that you look and feel your best wearing.
Experiment with different necklines.
Round and V neck are the most universally flattering.
Halter neck styles tend to be supportive and flattering for large bust and curvy women.
Smaller frame women tend to look great in square neck and thin strap tops.
Jewel tones such as deep reds, dark purples, and emerald greens look amazing with dress blues.
Elegant neutrals such as black, matte gold or silver, and muted copper look fantastic with any uniform!
Avoid clashing colors with the dress uniform.
Any dress with a train or “mermaid tale” will only attract people stepping on your gown, so avoid this trip hazard.
Many dress designers are finally adding pockets to dresses. There are a ton of great full or wide skirt style dresses with hidden side pockets.
You can wear a strapless gown to the military ball, some units still follow tradition that shoulders are covered during the receiving line, so bring an evening wrap or bolero jacket, if you are not sure.
The ROTC military ball in high school is less formal that the career service events with more options for less formal attire. Tea length (mid calf) and high-lo dresses are acceptable. Unless the event dress code is specifically referred to as cocktail or non-formal, do not wear a dress above the knee.
What NOT to Wear to a Military Ball
Cocktail dresses, mini dresses, or crop top & skirt combo as absolutely inappropriate for a military ball.
This is not the time to embrace the latest “no pants” trend, waist high slit, or wear a skin tight sparkly jumpsuit.
Do not wear bright neon colors, big, bold prints, or anything too “flashy”. The servicemen in uniform are the main attraction and honorees, this is your time to blend into the background not steal the spotlight.
Exposed belly, side cut-outs, side boob, and short dresses are absolutely not appropriate. Do not wear animal print, S&M styled leather, bodycon dresses, or anything from a Victoria’s Secret runway show!
You should be wearing appropriate undergarments for your dress. If your dress is so tight that you have Visible Panty Line (VPL) then find a new dress, going commando is not the best option.
Bras, shape wear, slips, camisoles, or any undergarments should not be visible. Use double sided tape on your dress to adhere bra straps out of sight. Some dresses may even have hidden bra snaps to keep your bra straps tucked out of sight.
Make sure that you can walk across the room without tripping in your heels. Pre-scuff the sole of any new heels to prevent an accidental slip. You will be walking and standing for extended periods of time during the cocktail hour, receiving line, and dancing after dinner.
Practice walking and dancing in your shoes several days before the event to help stretch them out. This also gives you a chance to switch shoes before the event if they are uncomfortable. This trial run will help you avoid unnecessary pain at the event.
Closed toes shoes tend to look more formal.
Make sure that your toe nails are trimmed and neat for peep toe and open toe heels. Better yet, this is a great excuse for a pedicure. Avoid wild patterns or neon color nail polish for hands or toes.
In winter, you may consider an elegant boot under your dress. Make sure the boots are comfortable, polished, and dressy enough for your outfit. You will not be able to easily slip these off during the evening. I have worn inconspicuous knee-high black leather boots under flowy evening gowns without anyone realizing that I was wearing boots. My boot covered ankles were only visible under the table cloth as I sat for dinner.
You will be shaking hands in the receiving line, so avoid bracelets and rings that will make that difficult. Loose, clunky, bangle bracelets have a tendency to be loud at the worst possible times (during a toast, while meeting the commander’s wife, etc).
If you are wearing a strapless dress or worried about getting chilly at the event, wear an evening wrap/shawl or bolero jacket. Leave the crochet poncho and jean jackets at home.
Your accessories are not competing with the decorations on his uniform! Necklace and earrings set can make a statement without looking like a disco ball.
Leave the bulky bag at home!
Your evening bag should be a clutch, wristlet, or small bag.
Even better if your dress has pockets and you can ditch the bag completely.
I recommend bringing lipstick, powder compact, breath mints, cell phone, and identification.
If your date is not your spouse or long-term significant other, then bring your own credit card (for photos) and cash, just in case.
Professional photographers will have a designated area for professional photos. These are very similar to the photo experience at Prom and formal high school dances.
These are optional (paid) photos. If you decide to get a photo package, get in early when your makeup is fresh and your hair is fabulous. If you are anything like me, absolutely get those photos before dinner. A tiny grease mark or smudge of food may not be as noticeable on the dance floor, but it will be permanently captured in the photo. It is never a bad idea to double check your appearance in the bathroom mirror after dinner, photos or not.
There may be a white cloth covered table, usually with a candle, yellow ribbon, and rose. This is not a photo op for selfies, it is a symbolic representation for fallen soldiers. Show respect and reverence around this table, do not set your purse down or disturb the table in any way.
If you are not in uniform, then you are the support team. Period.
This event is about the service men (and women), there is no Prom Queen here. A military ball is their version of the red carpet. Your role is to smile on the red carpet, be supportive, and step back when it is their time to shine.
Let them know, “I got your six!”
2 thoughts on “What to Wear to a Military Ball | Women’s Fashion Guide to Military Ball and Etiquette Tips”
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