A list of the people who care what you wear to the military ball
(Photo: U.S. Marine Corps, Jason Jimenez)

On one hand, there are spouses who say that a military ball is a work event that requires a certain amount of classiness (as in … no clubbing outfits). These spouses beg people not to wear trashy clothes to the ball because it reflects poorly on them and the service member.

On the other hand, some spouses and female veterans claim that attempting to tell women what to wear is a form of woman-shaming that must be stopped. They say you should wear what you want and that no one will judge your service member because of your outfit.

Who’s right?

Let’s lay this debate to rest.

I present to you, the complete list of all the people who care what you wear to a military ball:

  1. You.
  2. Maybe your spouse.

That’s it. (I told you it was a short list!)

When it comes to military ball dresses, your opinion matters most.

Ultimately, the question of what to wear comes down to personal preference. Do you feel good in your outfit? Do you feel confident, comfortable and beautiful? Then it’s probably great, and your spouse will most likely agree. Go ahead, wear it, and enjoy it! No one is taking notes to put in your service member’s record book.

When younger spouses ask me what they should wear to a ball, I give them my advice. I’m not doing it to shame their choices. I do it so they can be comfortable and have fun. No one wants to be the most overdressed or underdressed person in the room. If you read articles recommending what not to wear, use them as a general guide for what to expect so you won’t feel uncomfortably out of place.

If you find something you don’t feel completely comfortable wearing, then perhaps the reason for your discomfort is that it’s not entirely appropriate. If it’s too tight, too short or makes you feel too self-conscious, then you will spend the whole night adjusting your dress instead of relaxing, meeting people and having a good time.

Who decides what is appropriate for a military ball?

When it comes to the question of how much skin is too much, I have the following caveat: Some people feel ‘comfortable’ in clothes that make others feel uncomfortable. Think dresses that show way too much cleavage, midriff or even a thong (yes, anyone who has been to a military ball has seen at least one example of this). Here’s what I have to say about that.

Remember that the ball is not really about you. It’s about your service member, the unit, the guest of honor and the fallen comrades who have gone before us. There is no runway or crown for the most beautiful dress. Dates are there to accompany their servicemember to a work-related event. You probably shouldn’t wear something to a military ball that you wouldn’t wear to a semi-formal office Christmas party.

Surprising reasons to stay classy for a military ball

An important reason to keep it classy: You never know who will end up at your table.

One year, we sat with the Gold Star parents of one of my husband’s Marines who was killed in combat earlier that year. I didn’t know ahead of time that they would be there. Of course, I was honored to meet them, listen to stories about their son and take pictures with them. I’m glad that I was wearing something tastefully appropriate they wouldn’t be ashamed to include in a family photo album.

Another year, we were surprised to have a Vietnam veteran seated at our table. He had been assigned to the same military unit almost 50 years earlier, and he was back to celebrate at their ball. I spent a wonderful evening chatting with this man who was old enough to be my grandfather. He probably didn’t notice or care what I was wearing. But that’s the point. I don’t know if he would have felt comfortable talking to me if I was wearing an extremely revealing outfit.

You can give an opinion without shaming

Ultimately, the only one who can tell you what to wear to a ball is: you! To those red-carpet warriors who want to tell people what to wear, here’s a piece of advice: Your opinion is only helpful if it comes ahead of time. Once a woman arrives at the ball, it’s too late to change. There is no benefit to making her feel ashamed or uncomfortable. But giving advice to a younger date before the ball could save her a lot of worry and money. This Ball season, let’s agree to be helpful, not judgmental.

By Lizann Lightfoot,

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