What sort of attire do I need to bring to Oxford for formal events? Watch

caitross
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Hello everyone, I’m an upcoming first-year student at Oriel College who currently lives in Texas. I received my exam results a few weeks ago and I’m starting to think about the sorts of things I’ll need to bring with me to uni. I’m especially wondering what sort of things people tend to wear to balls and formal dinners? I have a couple of old prom dresses but I have no idea if they quite fit the bill. I know the general guidelines for white tie vs black tie, etc., but I’d be really grateful if somebody could link me to a few specific examples of what would be alright for each sort of occasion. Thank you in advance!
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RogerOxon
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(Original post by caitross)
Hello everyone, I’m an upcoming first-year student at Oriel College who currently lives in Texas. I received my exam results a few weeks ago and I’m starting to think about the sorts of things I’ll need to bring with me to uni. I’m especially wondering what sort of things people tend to wear to balls and formal dinners? I have a couple of old prom dresses but I have no idea if they quite fit the bill. I know the general guidelines for white tie vs black tie, etc., but I’d be really grateful if somebody could link me to a few specific examples of what would be alright for each sort of occasion. Thank you in advance!
Don't worry about balls yet. Sub fusc is all you need to start with. A dress and gown is sufficient for formal hall at Oriel.
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caitross
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Thanks so much- I’m a bit overwhelmed with everything so it’s hard to tell what’s very important and what isn’t!
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nexttime
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(Original post by caitross)
Thanks so much- I’m a bit overwhelmed with everything so it’s hard to tell what’s very important and what isn’t!
Understandable! And congratulations on your offer!

I'd say that for a simple formal hall, most girls do not over-dress. A simple dress is fine. Once you get to the less frequent black tie and white tie events it gets more fancy but honestly the rules seem to still be pretty lax for girls.
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BrasenoseAdm
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(Original post by caitross)
Hello everyone, I’m an upcoming first-year student at Oriel College who currently lives in Texas. I received my exam results a few weeks ago and I’m starting to think about the sorts of things I’ll need to bring with me to uni. I’m especially wondering what sort of things people tend to wear to balls and formal dinners? I have a couple of old prom dresses but I have no idea if they quite fit the bill. I know the general guidelines for white tie vs black tie, etc., but I’d be really grateful if somebody could link me to a few specific examples of what would be alright for each sort of occasion. Thank you in advance!
Hola caitross,

Congratulations on your confirmed place. Oriel will send out guidance - we think they follow the same approach as we do, ie the students pass on tips and advice. We've just been sent our JCR (Junior Common Room) Freshers' guide to proof read and it includes a short section on exactly this topic.

Brasenose Admissions
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nulli tertius
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May I just make the point that Oxford has shops and since the retail industry has noticed that Oxford is full of students, many of those shops cater to late teens/early 20s.

Moreover Bicester Outlet Village is a short train ride away. For those who do not know of Bicester, it is a large collection of shops selling designer clothing cheaply. It seems as though the entire population of China buys its clothes there.
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caitross
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(Original post by nulli tertius)
May I just make the point that Oxford has shops and since the retail industry has noticed that Oxford is full of students, many of those shops cater to late teens/early 20s.

Moreover Bicester Outlet Village is a short train ride away. For those who do not know of Bicester, it is a large collection of shops selling designer clothing cheaply. It seems as though the entire population of China buys its clothes there.
Haha, I know I can buy clothes there and in retrospect it was a bit unnecessary to ask about ball clothes, which I certainly will buy in Oxford at a later time, but I’d like to be able to have a few things with me when I go, such as a couple of dresses for formal hall as I’d prefer to not have to worry about that sort of thing while I’m settling in. Thank you for the recommendation!
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harrysbar
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Will answer properly at lunchtime xx
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(Original post by caitross)
Hello everyone, I’m an upcoming first-year student at Oriel College who currently lives in Texas. I received my exam results a few weeks ago and I’m starting to think about the sorts of things I’ll need to bring with me to uni. I’m especially wondering what sort of things people tend to wear to balls and formal dinners? I have a couple of old prom dresses but I have no idea if they quite fit the bill. I know the general guidelines for white tie vs black tie, etc., but I’d be really grateful if somebody could link me to a few specific examples of what would be alright for each sort of occasion. Thank you in advance!
Hi caitross!

First of all, may I congratulate you on having exquisite taste and selecting the finest college anywhere in the world! (well I'm a bit biased, as my son is in third year at Oriel - medicine). I come up every so often for formals, so I will be mingling with the dinner guests, and may even be on your table!! Also I plan on dragging harrysbar along, so if you hear a couple of giggly middle aged (very glamorous) ladies, you will know it's us.

You will not need to wear your prom dress to formals, but a normal summer dress will do fine. You can even wear trousers if they are quite formal (I sometimes wear a pair of black velvet trousers in winter) but a nice blouse and a black velvet jacket with black lace trim (that's what I wear, but something similar will do). You don't have to wear high heels. You do need to wear your gown over the top, though.

Just as an illustration, here is a video of an oriel formal, along with a description of a formal at Oriel I went to recently

Formal Hall

This is an account of what happened at formal hall yesterday evening.

Formal hall is basically a posh three course meal in college.

Here, to show you what Oriel's hall looks like, is footage of Halfway Hall. This takes place halfway through your degree.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJCQzFWbZhg

I love all the beautiful wood panelling, the stained glass windows, and the romantic muted lamps. The Queen is an official Visitor to Oriel, and has been coming since she was a princess. The hall at Oriel boasts the largest portrait of the Queen outside of the Royal collection. She is now overdue a visit, so maybe the students may catch a glimpse of her soon.

Former students recall when Prince Phillip visited. The keener finalists were staying over the Easter holidays to swot up. He came up to them in the library and addressing them, said "Are you the dim lot, then?"

Anyway, this was the last formal of the year, so the hall was packed to the rafters. Everyone loves to get dressed up. A tie is mandatory. (M's friend likes to wear a cravat, and there was once hot debate amongst the fellows as to whether he should be ordered back to replace the cravat with a tie - first world problems, eh?) M... and his mates wear three piece suits with fob watches (you can hear them clanking against the tables when they sit down). Everyone wears their gowns (even my elder son, who is entitled to) , and the female students wear cocktail dresses. The trestle tables look very worn. As they have no backs to them, I like to sit with my back against the wood panelling. All the crockery and cutlery is already laid out on the table, accompanied by paper serviettes bearing the Oriel crest. My son and his girlfriend ask themselves why there are no cloth napkins with the Oriel crest sewn on instead (how first world problem do you want to get?) If you want to get to your seat in the middle of the trestle table, it is perfectly acceptable to climb over the table (just watch that crockery, though)!

The most important thing for the kids is ordering the drinks (especially as Mum is paying). The kids try for a bottle of Gustav Roche champagne at £19 a pop (bold move by them, but of course they were swiftly rebuffed). There were 7 white wines, 7 red wines a bottle of port and a rose to choose from. The boys, under my stern penny pinching gaze, finally plump for an Italian white at £7. There is also an Oriel label (yes) house white, an Oriel label red wine and an Oriel port as well (think you may be able to buy a bottle at the porters lodge if you ask nicely?)

The formal started at 7.30pm. Everyone was finally seated. The waiters are dressed smartly in Oriel uniform and white gloves (reminded me of afternoon tea aboard the QM2). The choir were upstairs in the gallery, music at the ready. A waiter closed the great oak door. There was a great bang on the high table and everyone stood as the fellows (tutors) filed in from a back room. They are all resplendent in their academic dress. The menu for the fellows tends to be superior to that offered to the students, unless it's a special occasion. The fellows seem to be eating off what appears to be silver plates and drinking from flagons. As silence falls, grace is said. At Exeter college the grace is very short (Benedictus Benedicte) however at Oriel they make more of a meal of it :eating:

Benedicte Deus, qui pascis nos a iuventute nostra et praebes cibum omni carni, reple gaudio et laetitia corda nostra, ut nos, affatim quod satis est habentes, abundemus in omne opus bonum. Per Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum, cui tecum et Spiritu Sancto sit omnis honos, laus et imperium in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

On this occasion this was actually sung by the choir. The occasion was starting to feel somewhat surreal.

The first course, mushroom soup, was served. My elder son hates mushroom soup, and promised me his. However on this occasion, he decided he rather liked it and scoffed the lot. Remind me to leave him out of my will.

The main course was chicken with pesto, roasted vegetables and new potatoes. By this time the conversation was flowing. I got talking to my neighbour, a masters student (law) from Hong Kong. We got talking about the student room. It's nice to know that out of the handful of students I met that day, all of them had used TSR and found it very useful when applying to Oxford. After a short conversation about his parents visiting, and Hong Kong, he started talking to his neighbours about Australia.

The dessert (lemon cheesecake) arrived. By that time, my two sons and M's girlfriend were having a heated argument. It seems whilst at Uni my son has become a republican. This meant an argument between him and my other son, an ardent royalist. The girlfriend said if she were offered a damehood she would turn it down (extremely, extremely first world problems now). I said I'd just take the flippin' lot if any gongs were going spare.

Before we could murder each other, the Provost stood up. Something obviously unexpected was happening. The Provost started speaking in Latin. My O level Latin proved sadly, completely useless in this case. My son's girlfriend whispered that if someone passes the fellows a note (has to be in Latin) the fellows have to read it. The provost read out the note. It was a sconcing:

Sconcing is a tradition at Oxford University of demanding that a person drink a tankard of ale or some other alcoholic beverage as a penalty for some breach of etiquette.

The Provost had just asked the Finalists to stand up and quaff from their drinks, basically.

It must have been a bitter sweet moment for the finalists to have their last ever taste of formal Oxford before their graduation. (As alumni, though, they will still have high table rights)

And all for £14 (for us adults)


Your prom dresses will be perfectly respectable for a ball, but if you are looking for a new ballgown, this is the place:

https://www.ballroomemporium.co.uk/

I think you can hire or buy. The shop is the far side of the roundabout, past Magdalen as you are leaving the city. Just go over the bridge immediately after Magdalen (fondly known as the bridge too far). Or alternatively, for a cheaper buy as Nulli says, go to Bicester Village for cut price designer wear.

The thing is, Oxford students tend to be a bit time poor, so although the formal meals are relatively cheap for students, you may not have time to eat there all the time. However at Oriel they tend to be formal hall heavy with formal halls available about 5 nights a week, if you are an addict.

But do not despair, you can also have informal hall on the same night (just earlier) if you only have the time and energy for a quick meal. My son tends to cook for himself in the kitchen most nights.
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(Original post by nulli tertius)
May I just make the point that Oxford has shops and since the retail industry has noticed that Oxford is full of students, many of those shops cater to late teens/early 20s.
This is an astonishing revelation. Have you thought of giving it greater publicity?
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Estreth
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Just in case any prospective students feel intimidated by that long description of a formal dinner, let me just add that not everyone loves to get dressed up. Some of us avoid it as far as possible, and if it is not your thing you will not need to endure it more than once a term at the most.
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nulli tertius
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(Original post by Estreth)
Just in case any prospective students feel intimidated by that long description of a formal dinner, let me just add that not everyone loves to get dressed up. Some of us avoid it as far as possible, and if it is not your thing you will not need to endure it more than once a term at the most.
I think that probably needs to be said.

Over the last 30 years or so Oxford formals have become more formal but have become more a special event in which students choose to participate if they want to rather than the usual way of having an evening meal.
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Sailin
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You buy your sub fusc when you arrive in Oxford right? This sounds like a stupid question, but I'm entertaining the idea of making it myself...
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Oxford Mum
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As long as it’s a plain black suit it doesn’t matter. You can buy or make it beforehand, in fact the cheaper the better, as it will get trashed at the end of the year. In my son’s case as a linguist he had to jump in the river in his sub fusc.

You can buy the cap and gown in Oxford though and they are not too expensive.

You must be very talented to be able to make your own clothes
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he had to jump in the river
You should have learned to stop believing everything he tells you by now. Self-immolation is entirely voluntary and usually driven by an excess of exuberance and/or alcohol.
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Estreth
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And 'trashing' (getting covered in shaving foam, confetti, champagne, and God knows what else) by your fellow students is not only voluntary but also frowned upon both by the university authorities and increasingly by the student body, as conveying an inappropriate message of decadence, and being environmentally unfriendly and inconsiderate to those who have to clean up the mess.
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BrasenoseAdm
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As this thread has developed into a general discussion of Formal Hall (or "Formals"), here is another perspective on this aspect of student life. During Term Time, we offer three Formals a week (Tuesday, Friday and Sunday). A Formal is simply a three-course meal to which wine can be brought, purchased at the College bar beforehand. These events are very popular among students and the JCR run a Facebook group to ensure that all of the tickets get used. The Facebook site is also a means to acquire extra guest tickets (for example, if you have family visiting) and we rely on the students themselves to police the system to ensure it is not abused.

From the college perspective, Formals are expensive since the fact that the meal is served by staff greatly increases the subsidy on the meal. Logistically, Formal Halls are also complicated by the need to ensure that everyone with a special dietary requirement gets served the correct food. We would not go to this trouble unless Formals were something the students placed value on. Currently though we think three Formals a week is the right balance.

Practice varies at different colleges but at Brasenose since the cafeteria is located next to the Hall, students can in fact collect a meal on their trays and eat 'informally' in Hall. This means that there is not a formal dining space and a separate informal dining space: the two are one and the same. It is just that the informal session takes place just before the served meal.

The only dress code is a gown: there is no need to wear special or 'smart' clothes and there is no need to wear a tie. What students elect to wear is up to them and may depend on what they plan to do after the meal. There is a College grace that is read out by a student volunteer.

Drinking games of any sort (sconcing and similar) are not allowed and in fact condoning the placing of pressure on someone to drink is contrary to UK licensing laws. Many students do not consume alcoholic beverages for various reasons (including religious observance and on health grounds). There are always alternatives to puddings and the full range of dietary requirements are catered for (including but not confined to vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian options).
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(Original post by Estreth)
And 'trashing' (getting covered in shaving foam, confetti, champagne, and God knows what else) by your fellow students is not only voluntary but also frowned upon both by the university authorities and increasingly by the student body, as conveying an inappropriate message of decadence, and being environmentally unfriendly and inconsiderate to those who have to clean up the mess.
Ah, so my reaction to this was not so out of place after all:-)
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