I refuse to shame military wives over their ball gown choices. Here’s why


This is an opinion piece that does not necessarily reflect the views of MilitaryOneClick.

(Photo: Unsplash, Vil Son)

It’s that time of year again: Marine Corps Ball season. No matter how many I’ve attended, I always look forward to the ball. I love everything about it: The ceremony, the tradition, the gasps that fill the room when the narrator announces the birth year of the youngest Marine in the unit. (Did she say 1999?!)

But my favorite part–bar none–is having an excuse to get all glammed up and head out on the town with my handsome hubby.

Call me silly, call me frivolous, call me old-fashioned. The truth is, I just can’t help it. Even after attending more than 15 Marine Corps Balls, there’s still something magical about the word “ball gown.” It conjures images of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn and Kate Middleton. Elegance and glamour personified. Everything that on a daily basis, I am not.

I’m what people describe as a “low maintenance” woman. I work from home, which means I can be as lazy about my wardrobe as I feel like. Typically, my daily dress consists of the workout clothes I wore to the gym that morning so I don’t have to do any more laundry than is absolutely necessary. I wear makeup about once a week. I recognize that this may seem unforgivable to some, but I find I work best in comfort, and there’s nothing more comfortable than a pair of stretchy yoga pants, a sports bra, and bare face I can rub in frustration when I can’t find the right words.

So, when autumn rolls around and my Facebook feed starts to fill with snapshots of the dresses-of-yesteryear along with images of this year’s dream gowns, my inner princess (usually buried firmly beneath deadlines and swathed in the finest quick-wicking running shorts) emerges brandishing stilettos and lipstick.

But folded in among the Facebook posts and Pinterest boards filled with prospective designer gowns and glamorous red-carpet hairstyles, is a darker message: Fit into a narrow category of what’s considered “acceptable.”

Or else.

In the weeks leading up to the ball, it never fails that a slew of snarky “Don’t Be That Girl” blog posts and articles circulates among spouses and significant others. There are entire Pinterest boards dedicated to “Trashy Military Ball Gowns”–often peppered with pictures of women who didn’t realize their photo was being taken, and never gave their consent to have it published on the internet. I once went to a Ball Etiquette Class aboard MCAS Miramar where slides were shown displaying women in “unacceptable” gowns, their identities redacted by a black line scrawled across their eyes.

Some people find these photos, articles, and boards funny, but much like the People of Walmart website, it’s a brand of humor I will never appreciate. Not only does it send the message to women that our worth is commensurate with our clothing choice, but it always reflects what clothing is acceptable solely to the author. And most of the time, that author is someone like me–an “old-timer” who’s been around for ages and has a closet full of gowns reflecting the fashion choices of decades gone by.

The truth is, picking a gown that meets everyone’s standard is impossible because everyone’s standard is different. Whenever I read through these articles, or sit through one of these classes, I can’t help but imagine the inevitable criticism no matter how hard I try to find something “appropriate.”

For some folks, that means long gowns only because short gowns are “cocktail attire” and Dress Blue Alphas are considered “black-tie.” “What about tea-length?” I ask. Are you kidding? They answer. This isn’t an Edith Wharton novel. What don’t you understand about FULL-LENGTH GOWN?! “So, does that mean I can wear something with a train? I’ve always wanted a dress with a train.” That’s a bit too formal. It’s not your damn wedding.

For others, it’s all about how much skin is shown. Collarbones are typically sanctioned, but cleavage, backs, and thighs may be vetoed. This type of article often comes with a recommended “bend over test” (i.e. bend over and make sure nothing falls out). Some of these critics are okay with using tape to keep your parts in place. Some say the need for tape disqualifies the gown. Period. Nope, I see you and your plunging neckline, they say. Put that tape down now and change your dress. “So, can I wear cutouts on the sides of my gown? It doesn’t show much,” I plead. No way in hell, they say. This isn’t prom and you’re not 16. Who decided that’s a good look anyway?

The exceptionally nitpicky will even try to dictate fabric choice, with leopard print and sequins high on the list of no-nos. Anything too stretchy? Ixnay. “Even if it’s a luxurious, stretchy, crushed velvet that makes me want to pet myself all night?” I wonder. Woman, you’ve gone and lost your mind, they answer. In something that tight, I can see your thong!

Let’s not even mention shoes because if I hear the phrase “stripper heels” one more time, I may scream.

Almost all of these articles mention “reflecting positively on your service member,” while admonishing us with the reminder that the ball is a work function, not a hot date night. So, whose standard should I conform to and by whose standard should I be judged? Some random author’s? The CO’s wife’s? The guest of honor’s? My husband’s? My peer group’s?

My own?

What are we really telling a woman when we give her a list of “acceptable” ways to dress? We’re telling her that her value is somehow tied to her fashion choices. That if she doesn’t conform to a wholly subjective standard, she is a failure in someone’s eyes. But it’s a no-win situation, because someone will always find something wrong. If it’s not my dress, it will be my shoes or my hair or my makeup. One of my dearest friends once told me she loved how I rocked the fire-engine red lips, and that she wanted to go vintage-glam that year as well . . . but her husband told her red lips were for whores.

It’s time for women to band together and support each other’s fashion choices regardless of whether or not we would wear them personally. And we should start on the evening we hear the most snarking and see the most finger-pointing: The ball. Because this criticism goes far beyond one evening. It cuts to the very root of how society treats women.

From the time we enter grade school, girls have pages of dress code restrictions pressed upon us, while restrictions for boys may be mentioned in a line or two max. (Go ahead, get your child’s dress code out and give it a read. It’s enlightening.) Women are constantly labeled “prudes” or “sluts” based solely on what they’re wearing at that moment. As though a garment can define someone’s entire nature. As though our nature is equivalent to our sexuality. As though we can only be defined by the false-dichotomy of the virgin and the whore.

I know some will read this and continue to opine that as a work function, there is a standard of modesty that must be met, and that some people must be called out. But labeling a woman “trashy” says much more about us than it does about her–regardless of her dress choice for one evening. Being positive about what another woman is wearing, or simply refraining from criticizing her tells that woman she’s supported and accepted as she is. That she is enough. It would be best if we could see beyond what a woman looks like (to judge her not by her gown, but by the content of her character so-to-speak), but that may be too much to ask of our society at this juncture in history.

What’s not too much to ask, I think, is that as women we behave inclusively. That we root for each other. That we be on each other’s team. We don’t have to love every gown out there–I’m sure there are lots of people who haven’t liked my staid, boring, black dresses over the years–but we can easily refrain from judgment because a gown is not to our taste. After all, when women support each other amazing things happen.

By Liesel Kershul

9 Comments

  1. I am an Airforce vet, never went to an event that allowed me to wear a really nice dress. Had to wear my formal uniform.
    I think that any time a woman has a chance to step out and wear something that makes her feel special. While her other half gives her that really special look. Then who cares what others think. We all grew up with different ideas of the greatest dress. Let them do what is right in their mind.

  2. Thank you for this! I don’t “do” the ball thing but I’m so tired of seeing all this hate about what to wear and how to look. As we spouses are always reminded; We don’t wear the uniform, so why make up up?

  3. Couldn’t agree more that we need to knock off the mean-girl, judgmental high school nonsense when it comes to how we evaluate women. Also that a risqué dress does not a hooker make. And I have no words for the person who thinks red lipstick is a problem.

    That said, I have no problem with the general dress code guidelines that often are set for these things. It IS a work event, and especially for people who might be attending their first one, it doesn’t hurt to have a general sense of what’s appropriate.

    I also don’t have a problem with general Q&A about what the dress code actually means. I’m fashion challenged. I love it when there is a place I can go that tells me what the dress code means for THIS place. (Evening attire? Egad. That’s a pretty wide spectrum, and at any given event, significant parts of that spectrum wouldn’t be considered appropriate.)

    I wouldn’t want to see all of the do/don’t material disappear. Until we’re actually successful at knocking off the judgment, which seems a long way off, I’m all for making it easy for people to know what constitutes “right.” Done nicely, without snarky, or “can you believe she asked that,” of course.

    I’m also all for people making a deliberate decision to say screw it, I like my red dress and it covers all the bits I am legally required to cover in public, so damn the torpedos and all that. I just feel really bad when the person who would not have wanted to stand out does because she didn’t know what “typical” was for this particular event.

    (Full disclosure: I’m also the service member rather than the spouse, so I don’t have/get to worry about what I’m wearing to one of these. But I think the article applies to the way women treat other women in general.)

  4. I want so badly to share this to the stupid “spouse’s unit page” after a “Belle of the Ball” meeting just took place. A bunch of nose in the air busybodies telling other adults what they can wear. I’m a highly modest person myself but the cattiness the ball creates is insane.

  5. I want to respond to this very badly, but I’m going to fumble through it, I think. There is a theme about this article that really bugs me and it’s this idea that the ball is somehow about you, somehow about YOUR Marine, and somehow NOT about the heraldry and tradition of the Corps, somehow NOT about those that gave their lives while serving.

    The dressing standards for males are there as well. I’ve never seen a male spouse in less than a tuxedo…and most of the time they have tails. However I’ve never seen an article stating that their worth shouldn’t be tied to their tuxedo…that they shouldn’t be told what to wear. It’s only us women. Even when our male dates are told down to the 1/4th inch how their attire should look, we still complain about dress codes for the ball (which literally every ball I’ve ever been to and every Belle of the Ball event I’ve ever attended, has only been described as respectful). I think that has been convoluted into the notion that I have to dress in a way that others see as respectful, but really this means you should dress in a way that YOU feel shows respect. Because THAT is what this event is about.

    Honestly, the first spouses I approach at the ball are the ones that are dressed “inappropriately” (and I put that in quotations because…no idea whose definition of that word I use…mine I guess). Because many times they’re being shunned by the other older, more well versed spouses and I refuse for any spouse to feel that way if I can help it. Even if you don’t dress “appropriately” by my standard (which can be kinda old farty), I’m going to do my best to make sure you have a great night and I’m not going to tolerate anyone bullying you…because you’re my sister in this fight. How many times have I heard one of these young spouses say…”I didn’t know what to wear and now I’m so embarassed”? There is a big difference in refusing to shame others (which, ball or not, should NEVER happen to anyone) and refusing to educate newer spouses on the point of the Marine Corps ball.

    1. MVP, great point about what the ball is really about. My point with this article wasn’t to imply that the ball is about anything else, it was simply a response to the snarky articles and photo boards that float around the internet this time of year. Especially the classes and the Pinterest boards that feature photographs of women who didn’t know their photo was being taken and who didn’t give their consent to have it used. I also agree that first time ball goers may want some guidance, but I think the way that guidance has been given over the years has sometimes missed the mark — bullying women and labeling them “trashy not classy” is simply mean and not at all helpful IMHO. I think as a community we can do better, be kinder and more inclusive. We should all be respectful and reflect seriously on what the ball signifies, but I believe we can do that and be respectful of each other as well.

    2. Yes MVP! I’ve been seeing quite a few things about the hate about what people wear to the ball. I just don’t see it or hear it as much as this is talked about. I would expect my husband to dress appropriately for an event if he attended something for my job. There is a meaning to the ball. That empty table means something and for my spouse, it means a whole hell of a lot. Friends he has lost, Marines no longer here. How did this ever get to be about someone’s dress? Everyone knows what is completely out of bounds. I have seen a boob pop out at a ball. Maybe, if there is a high possibility that will happen at a work event, don’t wear that. I wouldn’t wear that to a work event. Does that mean that I’m being awful? Not supportive of women? Nope. Because a work event is about work and what I do. I work for a cancer charity, that’s what it’s about. I think what all of these things/events are trying to do (possibly sometimes not in the best way), is to give especially new spouses, a sense of what the ball is supposed to be about as far as the tradition and what it means. I would never, have never told anyone what they were wearing is wrong. I’ve never heard of someone I know telling someone what they were wearing is wrong. And in almost 20 years, I’ve been to quite a few. It just feels like this isn’t actually the huge issue it’s made out to be and that a few people passing these posts, contributing to pinterest boards and talking about this are a very small number of people who are getting a whole lot of attention for their bad behavior.

  6. Haha after our last annual we did have a formal announcement to be aware that it was a formal event and to dress accordingly after a girlfriend of a service member wore a very revealing dress.

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