Poll: Are Ballgown Rules Stupid?


Every year the discussion is the same: can you wear ____________ [insert dress style, length, color, sleeve style, etc.] to your local military ball?

You’ll never get just one consistent answer for questions like that. Because while there are handbooks, guides, traditions, best practices and just plain old common sense, we all know that not everyone is going to follow them.

(Don’t have any idea what any of those traditions are? We’ve got help here.)

And if you skip that cocktail length dress that looked killer on you because you’re “supposed to” wear a floor length one? You’ll inevitably end up at the ball surrounded by 50 people in cocktail length dresses wondering why you’re the only one who followed the “rules.”


I’ll be the first to admit that I really enjoy ball-watching. It’s the kind of pleasure you get from reading the best and worst dressed magazine features after the Oscars. When I spend hours shopping and debating dress, hair and make-up for myself, I want to see what other people are wearing. It’s just fun.

But when it comes to actual rules, why are we all worrying about what other people wear to the ball, anyway? As long as you aren’t showing up naked, should anyone care?

We want to hear from you. Should there be rules as to what you can and can’t wear?

Fill out my online form.

And the results are ….

About the Author

Amy Bushatz
Amy is the editor in chief of Military.com’s spouse and family blog SpouseBuzz.com. A journalist by trade, Amy also covers spouse and family news for Military.com where she is the managing editor of spouse and family content. An Army wife and mother of two, Amy has been featured as a subject matter expert on CNN.com, NPR, Fox News, NBC, CBS, ABC and BBC as well as in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Follow her on twitter @amybushatz.
  • That person

    Balls are not proms. One’s attire should reflect the actual purpose of your attendance: accompaniment of your SM. To that end: It is NOT about you. The best rule is to wear something considered a formal evening gown or state attire. Not showy but understated in a neutral formal color: dark blue, black, burgundy, champagne, forest green. And the glitz of this dress should in no way upstage what is to be the actual display: the SM dress uniform. I tell young ladies to think of it this way: at the ball, you’re an accessory, that dress uniform is the real show. But then again I’m hella old and almost remember when we all wore togas and it was the Legion Ball. The wine and grog were better and more ample then. Ha!

    • runswithscissors

      Some might object to being called an accessory but you are right about not upstaging the event. This isn’t the prom or the Oscars…and I agree, its not about you the individual but the group as a whole. This isn’t the time to make a statement or try to standout in any way. I would say that both the SM and the date are merely components to the event itself…. True class is putting those around you at ease, and showy dresses do the opposite (regardless if the look good or terrible).

    • Guest

      I definitely understand keeping it classy, but no sequins? I’m going to my first ball and bought a black Adrianna Papell dress with gray sequins. It’s definitely too nice to be called a prom dress. I Would it still be too much?

      • That person

        I never said no sequins :). I said don’t be so bedazzled you upstage the dress uniform. I’m trying to think of a point of reference…have you ever seen that Gypsy wedding show? I have seen girls come to balls in neon dresses bedazzled like they were disco cowgirls. I doubt your dress by Papell is anything of the sort. I have a couple Papell dresses and they generally trend toward very good tailoring and design. Have a great time!

  • anon

    No one ever told me what colors I couldn’t wear…oops messed that up. I was told just to dress up and that *IS* meant to be a special night like prom where we all get fancied up for once…

  • Guest

    I would agree that I don’t wear prom dresses to military balls but then again, I am not 16 anymore and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t fit into my old prom dress even if I wanted to. I tend to opt for more subdued colors – less sequins and glitter but I don’t think there’s any need to take a back stage to my soldier. We are a couple and I think we should both look our best. There was nothing “old lady” about the dress I wore to a ball this summer, it was long, fitted in all the right places, and had a high enough slit to be sexy but still appropriate. I think that is the main key in picking any ball outfit – the best ball dresses look sexy, not slutty, and should be comfortable enough that the lady in question isn’t pulling up her top or down her hemline all night. I’m also a firm believer in using my husband’s dress code as a guide line for what I need to wear. If he needs to wear a bow-tie, then I need a floor length gown. If he can get by in a tie, I will be fine in cocktail attire. That might not be the case at every base or in every branch, but most everywhere we have gone, that seemed to be a safe rule to follow.

    • runswithscissors

      Well said.

    • Navyjag907

      Very good. I like the tie standard. For formal affairs I was in naval winter or summer mess dress with a bow tie and a couple of times in “choker” whites with no tie but formal nonetheless. My wife always dressed appropriately and she and the other ladies were a real treat. As a male I could never figure out how they could be so sexy and so conservative at the same time. Hollywood could learn a lot from military wives at a formal function.

  • Mysticnocturne

    I love the comment above about bow-tie vs. regular tie.

  • Becky H.

    I buy short dresses most of the time. I’m 5’3” tall which lands me between regular and petite. When I try on regular size long dresses they are way to long and would need alterations. If I buy petite it will look fine when I try it on barefoot, but incorrect with shoes. I also just think short dresses look better on me most of the time. If I’m going to spend money on a dress I will likely only wear once, I want to like it.

    • anon

      Amen short sister! and who has the money or time to find a tailor when you’re married to an enlisted guy?

    • guest

      It’s a ball, long dresses are correct, short is not, this is not a summer picnic, it is named a BALL gown for a reason. I’m the same height, it costs like 20 bucks to tailor a dress.

  • Rebecca

    When you are attending an event like this with your husband or significant other, your focus should be on reflecting well on him – a huge part of that is adhering to the traditions of his service. It’s not about you, so – yes – you should be concerned about rules and the impression you are giving your husband’s peers and chain of command. Like it or not, you can affect your husband’s career – choose to do so positively.

    • Guest

      Interesting statement. I hope my military member reflects well on ME, too. As a matter of fact, I hope ALL service members at these functions reflect well on their spouses. That means actually fitting into their mess dress uniform, not looking like the seams on the jacket are about to burst because they haven’t worn them in a year or more and didn’t bother to make sure it fits. Having them pressed is nice. And having shoes according to regulation rather than something the right color but wrong material would be a nice touch.

      As far as civilian spouses, dress appropriately. For men, a tux. For women, please wear clothes. Think of how awkward pictures will be if your spouse is covered neck-to-floor in formalwear and you have only 50% of your skin covered by clothing.

      • Tut

        Thank you! I am a civilian spouse, and I work on base. I work with these people too, not just my better half. The “reflection” goes both ways.

    • Guest

      I hope my military member reflects well on ME, too. I hope ALL military members reflect well on their significant others and their own profession for that matter. That means fitting into the mess dress, not showing up in a jacket that is about to burst at the seams.

    • guest

      I couldn’t agree more that both service members and spouses reflect on one another, so when service members or spouses focus on shaming other attendees, rather than focusing on being gracious, courteous, and welcoming, they are doing the military a disservice by displaying unprofessional behavior.

  • guest

    I think the problem here is that people spend their time slamming other women, denigrating them, treating them as less than and other. Balls and the yearly discussions surrounding them inevitably devolve into negative discussions of how horrible different people are and how they are a disgrace for this or that reason.
    Meanwhile grace and modesty in language goes out the window and we just create one more environment where military spouses are shamed, denigrated, and destroyed by those who annoint themselves the fount of all wisdom and knowledge. It’s old and it’s why the community is falling apart. Fewer spouses today want to listen to a constant barrage of why they suck for every decision they make or don’t make.
    Seriously, if you’re spending all your time commenting on someone else’s appearance, take that as a clue that you have too much free time on your hands and get a hobby.

    • jojo613

      Love your response. I follow only one rule, and I don’t really care what anyone else wears. I have too many better things to do than worry about what someone else is wearing.

      I hate when I hear complaints about spouses wearing prom dresses, if you don’t want someone to wear a prom dress, buck up, and borrow them a dress, or shut up…

  • Guest

    I’d love to know what the “rules” are for these mythical events. We’ve been a mil couple for 8 years and have never been stationed at a base that actually had a military ball.

  • guest

    Just think of this as what it actually IS: a work/career event.

  • jojo613

    The Air Force is the only service with some common sense when it comes to the military ball. It is made emphatically clear that cocktail dresses are acceptable.

    I follow the toe touch rule:

    I bend over, touch my toes, and if my boobs or butt come out, then the dress is not appropriate

    • Amy_Bushatz

      Hands down, the very best part of this whole discussion, is that our commenting system thinks “cocktail” is worth half-censoring. Hilarious.

      • jojo613

        LOL. I think it’s funny that my comment had to be approved by the administrators :)…

  • Anything, even class A mess dress looks stupid you’re doing the ‘Hokey Pokey’ or the ‘Macarena’.

    Great graphic – socks and undies would have ‘looked’ as ‘classy.’

  • guest

    The dances should be as dignified as the dress of the SM and partner. Dressing like serious adults and dancing like high teens are not compatible. Gone are the days when military balls had real decorum.

  • guest

    I spent 20 years in the Army and never attended a military ball. I was never assigned where, I guess, they had the time or inclination for such a thing. Too busy trying to accomplish the mission, working, going to the field or preparing for an IG inspection, etc. Upon reflection, it does seem sort of a frivolous activity for those who have nothing better to do.

  • Skipper19

    Excuse me. Everyone should stop being so sexist. What about us active duty women who go to the ball? It’s not about my husband, it’s about ME.

    • Jodi

      Active duty women wear a uniform.

      • guest

        Actually many active duty women choose to wear civilian dress.

        • Guest

          Then why do active duty men not wear civilian suits? What’s good for one is good for all.

        • jojo613

          Most of the balls I have been to, the invitation says…

          Non-Military Men: Black Tie
          Non-Military Women: Cocktail Dress or Formal Gown
          Military: Mess Dress or Modified Mess Dress

          There isn’t a Military women who don’t feel like wearing a uniform category.

          • guest

            Just telling you what I saw when I went to a ball and sat with a service woman who didn’t come in uniform. But you know, I guess I find it exhausting how sad it is that a bunch of women waste all their time fretting over something that in the long run is so unimportant.

          • jojo613

            I guess I’m one of the rare ones, I personally do not care what anyone else wears, not my problem, not my business. When I was active duty, I went to three balls. All three of them I wore mess dress.There was never an option of me not wearing my uniform.

            The only time I have ever seen something were I kind of did a double-take was last years ball, but what she wore was fairly extreme. I also went to a ball when I was in college and wore my prom dress– the horror.

    • guest

      You are a representative of your unit. You should not have to be told that.

    • Guest

      If he shows up wearing, say, a kilt, it will be about him. That’s how these conversations get started.

  • Guest

    And this is why my spouse and I never go… Too many politics involved in attending a ball!

  • guest

    What are those people in the photo doing? Whatever it is it looks weird and somehow unmilitary.

    • Guest

      It’s called a line dance. Likely the Electric Slide.

  • S Johnson Retrd USAF

    The dress for civilian females at Military Balls: One should look at pictures of the female military formal wear that is worn to these Military Balls. You will see, the skirt is long, almost touching the floor! Therefore this should be the example for the formal wear for the civilian females. Their dress should be a long formal dress that is at least ankle length. They can be one or two piece dresses where the top piece will lay over the skirt with no flesh showing at any time. It can be with our without straps, but does not show too much cleavage from the side or top! I believe that the names of the formal wear varies so much because it depends on where one grew up at. These are the different names I have heard people refer to the long formal dress as: Prom dress, Formal, Evening gown/dress, Ballgown, to include Bridesmaid or Brides mother. Cocktail dresses are not long dresses. And for the military functions that says to wear such dresses, the dress should not be shorter that 3 maybe 4 inches above the top of the knee, while standing. The civilian men should always wear a tuxedo. I understand that this will be confusing as some of the rules change from function to function, unit to unit, base to base, and from military branch to military branch. But no matter what, if you take the lead from the military women’s dress code for formal wear–you will not fail.

    • Jodi

      When there are 18-20 year olds who make less than a burger flipper McDonalds, I think we should let archaic rules slide. Unless you are paying for, or providing a loaner ball gown, let a poor high school/college student wear a prom dress.

      • guest

        The dress rules must apply equally to all ranks and ages. If one cannot afford to go, than do not do so.

        • Jodi

          Balls are to celebrate the military– enlisted and officer. Telling those who can’t afford to buy ball gowns to stay home is exclusionary and elitist. I wore my prom dress to three AF balls. I was complimented. No wonder younger spouses don’t feel welcome and think seasoned spouses are snobby.

          • guest

            The AF has a very short history and traditions. Traditionally going back several centuries military balls were reserved for the officer class only. If EM were present, they were there as servants.

          • Jodi

            And historically black people were also servants and weren’t allowed to use the same drinking fountains as white people.

            Historically, women didn’t serve in the military.

            Historically, gays couldn’t serve openly.

            I am so glad that it’s historic, and not relevant.

  • Chris Alf

    It’s not just the gowns that are stupid, the whole Military Ball idea is stupid.