How to enjoy a military Ball

by | Oct 16, 2021 | Military Life, New Military Spouse | 22 comments

The problem: You are invited to a military Ball and aren’t sure what to expect. Keep reading because: I’ll put your mind at ease so you know the traditions, what to wear, and how to have fun!

The first time I went to a military Ball was 17 years ago, when my boyfriend (now my husband) invited me to his first unit’s Ball. Neither one of us had attended one before. When I asked “What should I wear?” his helpful answer was, “A dress, I guess.”

I was in college and hadn’t been to a formal event in years. I dug out a dress from a high school dance: crushed velvet with sparkly butterflies on the skirt. It was fine: full-length, covered all the appropriate places. I didn’t have any dressy shoes, so I wore boots. I figured they would be mostly covered by the gown anyway. But as soon as I walked into the room, I realized that my outfit was more like Homecoming than Prom. I wished I had known, and spent some time shopping for a slightly more formal dress.

“I wish I had known what type of dress to wear to my first Military Ball!” ~The Seasoned Spouse

Since then, I have probably attended about 10 Marine Corps Birthday Balls with my husband (I lost count). Most of them have been wonderful and fun. There have also been some awkward moments, like when some of our friends were already drunk before the ceremony started. Or when I flew out to the Ball and didn’t eat most of the day, so I was hangry waiting for dinner to be served!

Maybe you are a military girlfriend who just got your first invitation. Or maybe you have been a spouse for years and either never had a chance to attend, or avoided the Ball on purpose. Either way, I am here to help you feel comfortable and beautiful on Ball night, so you can make the most of this unique experience!

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what to wear to a military ball and how to enjoy your first military ball

What to wear to a military ball:

First, let me just say: This blog is about encouraging military spouses, not putting anyone down. I am not here to make fun of anyone’s dress choices or to waste time being jealous of a younger wife’s appearance. That’s not who I am. I want everyone to feel beautiful and confident at the Ball, because I know you will spend a lot of time and money getting yourself ready. So here’s the basic guidelines:

  • A military Ball is a formal event. Military members will be in their fanciest dress uniform. As a date, your attire should be equally formal. This generally means a full-length dress, not a shorter “cocktail length” dress. But it doesn’t need to be a puffy ball gown and have a train, either. I know, the rules are silly. I didn’t make them up– I’m just telling you what everyone else will be wearing! (The exception is a Navy Khaki Ball, which is a little less formal, so you can wear a shorter dress to the Khaki Ball.)
  • “Appropriate attire” is a different definition for everyone, but this is a work function, and you may meet your service member’s boss or commanding officer. We have also had Gold Star family members or Vietnam Veterans sitting at our table. So try to cover underwear, cleavage, and the midriff. If you have to ask, “Is this showing too much?” the answer is probably yes.
  • Wear something comfortable. This includes dress and shoes. You will be wearing it all night, doing lots of sitting, standing, and dancing. If your dress is so tight you can’t move, you’re not going to have as much fun. Also–bring a wrap or cover for your shoulders, because it gets cold outside!
  • Color doesn’t matter. Lots of people like to match the military uniform. But wearing a unique color will stand out and get lots of compliments too. The choice is yours!

“If you have to ask if the dress shows too much… the answer is probably yes.” ~The Seasoned Spouse

DO these things at a military Ball:

  • Eat something beforehand. The ceremony can be long, and dinner isn’t served until the ceremony and keynote speaker are finished. If you start drinking earlier in the day, you need food to balance that out.
  • Be prepared to spend some time alone. This event is for your service member. There are people they will want to greet or have conversations with. Or they may wait in line forever for drinks. Or they are occupied for the first hour because they are on the color guard. Don’t get mad, just make some friends at your table or find someone else to hang out with.
  • Follow directions about when to stand or sit. Be respectful. There is a whole ceremony before dinner with a flag procession, cake cutting, and guest speaker. This is the serious part of the evening, so just follow along with your service member.
  • Have fun! This is a night out with your date: laugh, make friends, dance, drink, etc.

how to have fun at a military ball

DON’T do these things at a Military Ball:

I’ve seen lots of mishaps at the Ball. Don’t be that guy (or that date) who is a public nuisance and falling out of your chair during the ceremony, picking fights, or throwing up in the bus on the way home. Yes, I have seen ALL of that!

  • Don’t drink too much! Please be responsible.
  • Don’t spend too much on a dress: You can always borrow from a friend or go to a giveaway near your base. Or use the FB pages to get a good deal!
  • Don’t get up and leave during the guest speaker: You are expected to remain in your seat for at least an hour during the ceremony. So visit the restroom ahead of time, and get a drink before you sit down.

What do you look forward to the most at a military ball?


  1. Jo Anderson

    Yes It’s my first military ball for my friend who’s in college at this military school he asked me to be his date. I have never been to one and he doesn’t really know what I’m supposed to wear snd I’m never good with these things. Is there any other tips you can give?

    • Lizann

      Sure! You can search on Pinterest, but in general look for formalwear or bridesmaid dresses–full length, and no crazy slits or cleavage showing. And have fun!

  2. Tammy

    Hi, my question is, do you know of any good resources that offers free or discount dresses, in Southern CA, that would be appropriate to wear to a Birthday Ball? Specifically, open to anyone and not just for a Military spouse.
    Thank you,

    • Lizann

      Great question! There is a nationwide non-profit called Operation Deploy My Dress that meets this need, but I think they only serve military spouses, so they are not open to everyone. Honestly, your best bet for a free or discounted dress if from a Thrift Store or local Facebook/Craigslist sales pages. Often, people buy a bridesmaid dress when they are in a wedding, and then don’t need to wear it again. Depending on the style, a bridesmaid dress is usually appropriate for a military ball. So I suggest searching local store on online sales pages for “bridesmaid dress” and see if you can find something affordable that way.

      • Tammy

        Thank you, I hadn’t considered bridesmaid dresses. I will look in that direction. Much appreciated.

  3. Carol Ann

    I have a Marine Birthday Ball to go to this Saturday. Should I get a corsage for myself, and boutonniere for my husband? Neither of us have ever been so I am not sure.

    Any help is appreciated!

    • Lizann

      Glad you asked– no flowers are necessary! You can certainly wear some if you wish, but the service member does not wear any flowers in uniform, and I don’t remember ever seeing women wear them as dates. So don’t bother with them unless it’s something important to you!

      • Carol Ann

        Thank you SO much! I REALLY appreciate the prompt answer! ❤️

  4. Sierra N Darnell

    Hey! I just need an opinion! We just went shopping for my first military ball gown, but I was so drawn to a jumpsuit. What do you think about fancy jumpsuits? They’ve been on the red carpet, used as wedding “dresses”, and more.

    • Lizann

      Ohhh, this is a good question. They can be very fancy and classy. It’s a more recent style, so I don’t think I’ve seen them at a Ball before, but you could certainly pull it off if you accessorized and dressed it up a bit. Wear what you enjoy!

  5. Abby

    Hi! Im attending to my very first ball with my significant other and I was gravitated towards a burgundy dress that is quite fitted, floor length, and has a quite higher slit and we both agree it does look formal, but I was just wondering if a high slit on the side is just a no-no? (think the dress Angelina Jolie wore on the mr and mrs smith poster).

    • Lizann

      It’s kind of a matter of opinion. There will be lots of dresses there with different lengths of slits. There isn’t an official rule, so the worst you do is raise some eyebrows. I would just ask if it will be comfortable for you. When you’re standing up and sitting down, will you feel self-conscious, or have to re-adjust every time? Will you be able to dance without showing your underwear? If you’re already asking, it sounds like you may not feel 100% secure about it. I think the important thing is for you to feel beautiful, comfortable, and secure in whatever dress you choose.

  6. Nicole

    I am going to a Navy Khaki Ball later this month. This is my first event like this as a girlfriend. I bought a cocktail type dress. Should I wear panty hose or go bare legged?

    • Lizann

      Probably wear hose. They are a little more classy/professional.

  7. Roy

    How about the other way around? She’s military and I’m not. Anything I need to be aware of that’s different, things I may run into?

    • Lizann

      Not much that is different. Non-military men wear a suit usually, not a tuxedo. It can be a 2-piece or 3-piece suit, your choice. Definitely wear a tie or bowtie. Other than that, the info above is the same. Enjoy!

  8. Malia

    Going to my first Navy Christmas Party next week with my boyfriend – How different is the “dress code” for the Christmas Party rather than a Ball? Any other expectations or things i should be prepared for going into the Christmas Party?

    • Lizann

      It’s not as formal, so a cocktail dress, party dress, or something around knee-length is fine, no need to get a ballgown. There won’t be as much ceremony in the beginning, and no cake cutting, but most of the other expectations are similar. Enjoy it and have a great time!

  9. Renee

    I’m playing in a band for a military ball!
    (I’m a female lol !)

    I’m wondering do we need to follow the military dress code?

    It’s a military ball for New Years. The ad states (Formal Military Ball) can I wear a knee length dress? It’s red with a few shiny things on it. Will the guys in the band be ok with a black suit and tie?


    • Lizann

      That sounds fun! Yes, suit and tie is appropriate for the men in the band. A cocktail or bridesmaid style dress should be fine for you. Just make sure it isn’t too short or revealing if you’ll be standing up on stage above the audience members. 😉

  10. Lisa

    Hi Liz. My husband and I are going to a military ball with my son who is a cadet at an academy. My question is should I stay away from patterns and go with a more solid color? Also is bare shoulders inappropriate?

    • Lizann

      How fun! Bare shoulders are fine. I see mostly solid colors, but wear whatever looks good on you and makes you feel comfortable.



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