At least once a year each military branch hosts a formal military ball that spouses can attend. It is both an honored occasion filled with military traditions and a social event filled with alcohol, laughter, and dancing.
For MilSpouses and significant others who are new to the military community, you may keep yourself up at night wondering what to wear, what happens during the event, and how you’ll be expected to act. Have no fear. This guide should help in preparing to make that first-time military formal event one to remember.
Different Types of Military Formals
Each branch has a main, annual ball as well as additional formal events to celebrate the military community. Here are the main ones:
The Army Ball occurs on June 14 each year as the Army’s birthday celebration, but it also stands to honor those who have died serving in the Army and to build the morale of new soldiers. In addition to the main Army Ball, the Army celebrates in localities all over the world.
The Marine Corps Ball, held every year on November 10, is often known as the Commandant’s Ball, but Marine installations also host local Marine balls. It’s a way to celebrate the Corps’ birthday.
The Navy Ball occurs on October 13 of each year and commemorates the birthday of the United States Navy. Typically, the Navy League of the United States hosts the main event, with Navy installations worldwide hosting local events.
The Air Force Ball is held as a celebration of the Air Force’s birthday, which originated on September 18, 1947, but the annual ball may not be held on that exact day every year. Air Force installations worldwide celebrate with a formal ball.
The Coast Guard Ball is an annual gala that celebrates the U.S. Coast Guard community and heritage. Although August 4, 1790 is this branch’s official birthday, the Coast Guard Ball may not be held on that exact day every year.
What Happens at a Military Ball?
No two military balls are exactly the same. Some might have seated dinners where others have buffets. Some may have guest speakers and some may not. As always, reach out to your local Military Spouse community to get the 4-1-1 on what to expect at functions from that particular unit. Most importantly, be respectful, relax and have fun!
A common military ball timeline is:
You will get a chance to mix, mingle and perhaps take photos with other guests. Alcohol will likely be served, just be sure not to overdo it!
This is an opportunity for everyone to be greeted briefly by the most senior officers (hence, why you shouldn’t overdo it during cocktail hour). Keep your greetings brief, such as, “Nice to meet you” or “Good evening” as you make your way through the line.
This is the point in the evening when dinner is announced and everyone proceeds to his or her assigned tables. There will typically be a presentation of Colors, where those in uniform will stand at attention and civilians will stand quietly.
The meal may be plated or buffet-style. Often, a program and presentations may be taking place during dinner.
Post-Dinner Speech and/or Cake
If there’s a guest speaker, they will typically give their speech following dinner. After the speech is concluded, a cake may be ceremoniously cut using a military saber/sword.
After the evening’s ceremonies and dinner are over, there is usually a DJ, lights and dance music.
What to Wear to a Military Ball
The dress code at a military formal is just that — formal. Servicemembers typically wear dress blues or Class A uniforms while their guests don formal attire. For male guests, that means a dark suit with a bowtie or a tuxedo; and, for the women, floor-length gowns are preferred, but cocktail dresses are also acceptable.
Cautionary Tip: If you opt for a cocktail dress, you may feel out of place given how formal everyone else will be.
Naturally, many female Military Spouses look forward to their annual military ball and use it as an excuse to dress up and go all out; but keep in mind that military formals are ultimately meant to honor the military service, so you should select your hairstyle, makeup, and outfit accordingly!
For military balls, you can’t go wrong with a formal updo, but it can sometimes be difficult to find a hairstyle that stands out among the rest — especially if you’ve already lost track of how many military formals you’ve attended. A good rule of thumb is to consider the style of your dress when choosing your hairstyle. Here are eight necklines and hairstyles that pair perfectly with them.
From twisted buns to intricate, braided chignons — the possibilities are endless. It’s also totally acceptable to wear your hair down if you’d like. All you have to do is dress it up the right way. Check out these military ball hairstyles for some style inspiration, or the video below from YouTube creator Alex Gaboury.
When selecting your makeup look for a military ball, you’ll want to take into account the style and fabric of the dress you are wearing, as well as the color.
Pro Tip: If you’re going for a bold lip, try and keep your eye makeup to a minimum. Alternatively, if you’re going for a sultry smoky eye, try a nude lip.
Check out these military ball makeup ideas for a simple, elegant look or watch the video below from YouTube creator Mary E. Makeup to see two different glam looks.
When choosing a dress, you should be looking for something flattering, age appropriate, and elegant. Some spouses even like to match their servicemember’s uniform colors, but it’s not required.
Image 1: Fort Bragg SpouseLink Ambassador Tiffany at Fort Bragg with her husband. | Image 2: AAFMAA Marketing Manager and Military Spouse, Kelsey, and her husband at the Marine Corps Ball. | Image 3: AAFMAA Assistant Secretary and Military Spouse, Charlene with her husband. | Image 4: San Diego SpouseLink Ambassador Gisella with her husband. | Image 5: Camp Lejeune SpouseLink Ambassador Jessica with her husband.
Here are some great sites to begin your search for the perfect military ball gown:
- Military Ball Gowns on Amazon
- Military Ball Dresses & Gowns from David’s Bridal
- Formal Dresses from Lulus
- Long Formal Evening Dresses from Simply Dresses
- Rent Gowns from Rent the Runway
If you don’t feel like dishing out hundreds of dollars on a dress you’ll wear for one night, check with other spouses in your area. Sometimes, you can swap dresses with them or purchase some of their dresses from previous events super cheap!
Military Ball Etiquette for Spouses
This may come as a shock, but there are no actual rules for military spouses at military balls. While your servicemember will have protocol rules to follow, spouses are simply expected to act in the manner of tradition and respect. That being said, you’re there to represent your servicemember and your attire and behavior should reflect that.
Lauren Tamm, also known as the Military Wife & Mom, breaks down the best military ball etiquette basics category-by-category on her blog, The Ultimate Guide to Military Ball Etiquette for Spouses.
The basics are:
- Anytime the Colors are presented, stop whatever you’re doing, stand and face the flag, and place your right hand over your heart. Do not leave the room.
- Don’t overdo it during the cocktail hour.
- Be polite — always say “please” and “thank you”.
- Refer to other servicemembers the same way they introduce themselves. When in doubt, ask your servicemember how to address others.
- For the receiving line, walk in front of your servicemember. They will first introduce you and then introduce themselves to the first person in the line who is there to act as an adjunct or aide. Do not shake this person’s hand! You will start shaking hands as you are introduced to the others in the receiving line.
- During dinner, place your napkin in your lap and keep your elbows off of the table.
- Have fun dancing, but keep in mind that it’s a formal event, not a club.
- Have a plan to make it home safely at the end of the night.
When you aren’t quite sure what to do, watch what others are doing and model after them. If you are respectful, attempt to follow along and make an effort, no one will give you a hard time about not doing everything perfectly.
Military balls are supposed to be glamorous, exciting, tradition-rich events. Enjoy the excuse to dress up and have a good time. Make sure you snap a few selfies and photos with friends to remember the evening for years to come.