Reading the dress code for an Oxford ball can make one feel the need to raid the closet of James Bond or a modern Jane Austen character. Balls are not only an excuse to drink and dance the night away, but also to show off a stunning black suit or gorgeous new dress. Unfortunately, the costs add up, especially considering the dress code.
A complete evening tail suit hire from Walters costs £85 while an Ede & Ravenscroft waistcoat purchase alone is £95 (one of the cheapest components — the tailcoat rings in at £695 and the white-tie optional black top hat costs £350), meaning that rental is usually the best option.
Women can also hire ball gowns, though it’s less common. Instead, hours upon hours are spent in shops, trying to find the perfect dress. And, of course, wearing one dress to several occasions means committing a major fashion faux pas, easily noticed thanks to social media.
Not only can the high cost of appropriate attire match that of a ball ticket, but it can feel exclusive. Don’t get me wrong: if a student can afford to go to ten balls a year without breaking the bank, I say go for it. But for those who can’t, dress shopping on a budget serves as a great reminder of what they don’t have. To their infinite credit, many ball committees work hard to ensure that each ball is the experience of a lifetime rather than a reminder of socioeconomic status, especially by pairing with hire companies to help save students money.
The New College Commemoration Ball committee is working on just that, as theirs will be one of the few white tie balls this academic year. The white tie dress code was chosen for tradition, as well as the once-in-a-lifetime feel. “While not common-place, people may well attend other black tie events while at University or afterwards, whereas most New College students will only attend a Commemoration Ball a maximum of once,” a spokesman for the committee said.
As a Junior Year Abroad student, I can’t help but contrast this with my home university, where long dresses are almost always casual summer maxis instead of gowns and full suits, never mind tuxedos, are a rare species. The last time I donned an outfit considered appropriate for a ball was my senior prom three years ago, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about the prospect of a formal evening at a ball or that I would be disappointed if my home university started such a tradition.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to reconcile this: the cost of attending a black tie or white tie event can be daunting and the idea that women need a different dress for each occasion can easily contribute to a throw-away culture, but what would a ball be if everyone looked like they were headed to Wahoo after? The charm rivals the price, and unless we do manage to break into 007’s or Elizabeth Bennet’s closet, there may be no simple solution to the noninclusive nature of Oxford balls.