What to Wear to a Military Ball

Tomorrow evening we will be attending a military ball. I tend to enjoy such events – wearing a gown, participating in hard-earned military tradition, and getting to see my husband in his dress uniform. Sure – sometimes the guest speakers leave more to be desired and the hotel banquet food is almost always dreadful but I’m a sucker for tradition and a room full of soldiers singing The Army Goes Rolling Along.


One of my favorite pictures. Ever.

Having acquired many gowns over the years, I planned to wear a formal gown I already owned this time around. The dress I wore as I bridesmaid at my brother’s wedding a couple of years ago wasn’t too bridesmaidsy (it’s a word, look it up!) and flattered my figure so I figured what the hell? Unfortunately, when I pulled it out of my closet I discovered stains cascading down the front that are likely salad dressing or some sort of alcoholic beverage (obviously I had fantastic time at the wedding or ate an inhuman amount of salad). So with that dress no longer being an option, I did a couple of warm-up stretches and set out on a journey to find a formal gown appropriate for a military ball that didn’t break the bank. Because spending $200+ on a dress that I’ll wear once isn’t my scene – I’d rather spend the money on wine (amiright, ladies?). And yes, I could have re-worn a gown from a previous ball, which was my back-up plan but I was determined to find a new one for under $100.


UnknownOne reason why finding a gown for a military ball is so damn frustrating is because very few brick-and-motor stores stock formal dresses that cater to the 20-50-year-old crowd. Everything is either geared toward prom or mother-of-the-bride. Being that I am in my early (and I stress early) thirties, I have no desire to look like little Shirley McClaine when she played a hooker with a heart of gold. But that doesn’t mean I want to look matronly and dowdy. While there is no need to show military brass my fine china, I still enjoy {tastefully} highlighting my strengths. Another reason why the search can feel futile is because there are very few reasons to put on a ball gown these days outside of the military, prom, and aforementioned Mother-of-the-Bride duties.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend many military formal functions throughout the years and over time, I have come to appreciate the so-called rules of dressing appropriately for a military ball. A great place to start when choosing a formal gown is to ask yourself the following three questions…


If any of the answers veer into yes territory, the dress is likely {ding, ding, ding} inappropriate for a classy broad to wear to a military ball. Don’t be that girl (there’s always at least one at every formal military event). It’s important to remember that a military ball is a work event; don’t give your significant other’s co-workers something to talk about on Monday morning. And please try not to become part of Internet-lore like the unfortunate case above, okay? While that doesn’t mean you have to channel the Amish, it’s best to leave your lingerie-inspired formal wear for Halloween. And don’t make the mistake I did my sophomore year of college – I attended a ROTC military ball with my now-husband looking like I smuggled a watermelon in my chest due to the double whammy of wearing an ill-fitting strapless dress with an ill-fitting strapless bra. Thank goodness it happened before digital cameras were commonplace.

So where can you actually find under $200 age-appropriate gowns that will turn heads for all the right reasons?

  • Upscale consignment shops.
  • Rent the Runway is a great option. While I have never personally used the service, I’ve had friends sing praises of their experience.
  • Ebay – I’m not a huge fan of ordering dresses online unless I can try them on first but I know many who swear by Ebay for formal gowns.
  • Department stores can be hit or miss. I’ve had great luck with Dillard’s. In fact, I found my dress this year on the clearance rack at a Dillard’s for $60!
  • Participate in dress-swaps with friends, spouses’ groups, or neighbors.
  • TheGownSwap is a place where you can buy and sell dresses.
  • TJMaxx, Ross, Marshalls, Stein Mart, etc… I’ve seen classic formal dresses (think Calvin Klein) at these stores from time to time. Not a guarantee but worth a shot!
  • An inexpensive classic black gown (Overstock always has some for well-under $100) is always a great option because it can be amped up with accessories.

Now if you excuse me, I’m off to research hairstyles…maybe something like this?


6 thoughts on “What to Wear to a Military Ball

  1. Gown shopping…it always sounds like so much fun until you realize the stores always think it’s perpetually prom season. Or that one time I went gown shopping in New Orleans during Mardi Gras ball season….oh dear. Now comes the next best part…seeing who didn’t quite get the appropriate dress memo!

  2. Was the sophomore year ROTC ball the one we both wound up at since Jesse was still Air Force ROTC at the time? I think it would have been my junior year … Need to try to remember to go through my non-digital picture stash at home tonight …

    1. NOOOOOO! 🙂 It may have been – I think Clay was president of Scabbard and Blade that year so he had a slightly different uniform than normal. That was his junior year, I believe.

  3. I’m always so surprised when ball season comes around that girls still show up not dressed correctly. Is it really that hard to figure out? Floor length, no crazy cut outs and don’t look like your at a pageant! Side note: I bought my dress for this year already, but now I’m loving so of those options on Rent the Runway….oh decision!

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