Military Balls & Formals Etiquette
November 1, 2013 by Mark Dye
It’s that time of year when branches of the service celebrate their anniversaries, units organize formal dinners and some are honored with an invitation to one of the formal functions at the White House. Regardless of the venue or theme for the formal function, there are some basic “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that anyone connected to the military should know. Understanding simple etiquette, proper titles, the sequence of events for a military ball and the types of attire to wear can make the event more enjoyable and eliminate any stress about attending.
While the events are meant to be fun for all, it’s important to remember that this is a work function. Your significant other will be introducing you to their coworkers and superiors so decorum should be paramount. Some like to refer to these types of events as a ‘military prom,’ but unlike the dance you may have attended back in high school, this will be a more structured event with specific protocols. There will typically be a sit-down dinner, drinks and specific honors given. Before we dive too far into the agenda, let’s cover the basics.
What Should I Wear?
At a military ball, the service member will typically wear a ‘mess dress’ uniform or a modified, more formal version of the service dress uniform where typically miniature medals also worn (the regulations differ for each branch). Simply put, it’s viewed as a ‘black tie’ affair that a civilian man would wear a black tuxedo suit to. When in doubt, the invitation to the event will always spell out the prescribed attire.
Female service members will wear a ‘mess dress’ or other appropriate version of their service dress uniform. Some however, may elect to wear full-length evening gown or cocktail dress. They will receive guidance from their command on which is allowed.
The focus really should be on the service member if they are in uniform and their guest’s attire should be complimentary. A good rule of thumb for evening gowns or suits is to keep the style simple, classic, dark in color and accessorized with just a few elegant items. Footwear should be formal and stylish. Avoid going too casual or too 'over-the-top.' Outfits don’t have to be absent of sex appeal, but keep in mind that the goal is to make a great first impression with the people you will meet — without embarrassing yourself or the service member.
What’s the Agenda?
Military balls are usually well scripted and will adhere closely to a timeline. The invitation will provide the timeline and your seating assignment but just in case, here is the typical flow: If the event starts at 1800 (6PM in civilian time), it is proper to be there 10-15 minutes early. As many of us who served in the military learned, "If you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re late!" Most military balls start off with a cocktail hour. This is a period of time specifically established to meet others, have a drink and engage in some light conversation to get better acquainted. It’s also a good time to take photos and ensure you know your seating assignment. A rookie mistake made during cocktail hour is to over indulge and run the risk of embarrassing yourself during the next evolution: the receiving line.
The formal receiving line will include guest speakers, guests of honor and their spouses, and the Senior Commanding Officer and Senior Non-Commissioned Officer with their spouses. The first person in the line is typically an aide or an adjunct who will introduce you. It is not customary to shake that person’s hand, but instead after being announced as “This is (Rank) and Miss or Mr. (Last Name)”, shake the hands of the guest of honor you’re introduced to and give a brief greeting like “Good evening, General.” Or “It is an honor to meet you, General.” When passing through the receiving line, the lady typically goes first and is followed by her spouse who will then introduce her by saying, “This is my spouse Mrs. Smith and I’m Petty Officer Smith.” The receiving line is typically short and lasts for about 30 minutes. Here are a couple of pro-tips that will keep you from offending others in the receiving line:
First, keep your hands free of drinks, food or cigarettes. If a lady is wearing gloves, her right hand should be uncovered to allow her to shake hands. Second, ensure that greetings are cordial and brief. There are others waiting behind you to make it through the line so its important to be courteous to the guests of honor as well as those in line. After making it through the receiving line, the couple will go to their assigned table.
Once everyone has made it to their tables, remain standing in preparation for the color guard to parade the colors. Those in uniform will stand at attention and civilians will stand quietly. Some events will have a Master of Ceremonies that will announce the next event but as a good rule of thumb, keep the head table in the corner of your eye and follow their lead. A program of the events will be at your place setting to provide more specifics. After the honors are rendered, an invocation is customary. Following the chaplain’s invocation, a series of toasts will begin. These are initiated by various individuals in the crowd and will range from toasts to the President of the United States to toasts to the fallen. A toast doesn’t have to be conducted with an alcoholic beverage, just a charged glass. Once the toasts conclude, typically dinner will be served and enjoyed for about an hour. Take this time to introduce yourself to those at your table. I won’t go through the specifics of dinner etiquette, just remember to use common courtesies and manners.
Following dinner, the guest speaker will begin to give his/her speech. During this time, provide your full attention to the guest and refrain from sidebar conversations at the table. After the speech is concluded, a cake will be ceremoniously cut using a military saber/sword wielded by the most senior (or honored) guest and the most junior military member. The cake will then be removed and be served individually to all the guests.
The last formal portion of the evening will be when the color guard retires the colors. The guests should render the same courtesies as the colors are paraded out. From here on out, the dancing will begin and the bar will open up. The tone of the event will become more relaxed. Have some fun, but leave your really crazy or dirty dance moves at home.
While it’s customary not to leave until after the senior person departs, life happens and that’s not always possible. The polite thing is to say goodbye and apologize for an early departure to the host. While this is an older custom, it creates a great opportunity to let them know how much you enjoyed yourselves.
While military balls or formal functions may be overwhelming to the novice, they aren’t meant to intimidate you. They provide a customary way to enjoy being in the service in a very traditional manner. The more you engage, the more fun they will become. It’s not every day you get to dress in formal attire and spend the evening with your loved one, so remember to relax and enjoy the experience.
Some additional resources for military etiquette:
Photo Credits: www.alansuits.com, www.army.mil, blacktiemagazine.com