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The Dichotomy Between Military and Civilian Event Fashion

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Bucknell chapter.

Everyone knows someone who has a boyfriend or met someone in the military and has been invited to a formal event. The problem is what comes after: the question of what to wear to a formal military event!

It’s easy to get overwhelmed at the sight of the ceremonial uniforms the service members wear to formal events, especially when considering how much time and effort has gone into making them look spotless and absolutely perfect. Most times, they can and will be punished for not dressing appropriately in terms of military guidelines, making it essential that everything is pristine. 

Throughout history, the military has affected fashion over different stretches of time, most notably wartime. Women would change their fashion choices during wartime due to lower availability of fabrics or dyes, most commonly noted in the WWII era. In addition, each branch of the United States military has changed their uniforms several times, both informal and formal, and have changed colors and placement of medals and the additional materials needed to complete the uniform, such as name tags and special patches for unique achievements. In fact, the Army recently reinstated the iconic green uniform from World War II in honor of the members who served during that time. 

Women have always been a minority in the military, making it more common for men to bring them to formal events simply because women were historically less likely to be the one serving. This also means it can be intimidating to know what to wear as a civilian (non-service member) to a military ball or ceremony, especially as a woman. It might feel most appropriate to wear a pantsuit or an extravagant evening gown complete with pearls based on the vibe the military uniforms give off, but a lot of people don’t realize that you can still express yourself through fashion as long as it is appropriate!

The West Point (United States Military Academy) formal event style guide displays photos of mostly plain and somewhat generic dresses that all appear to have the same sleeve style, usually a t-shirt sleeve or something similar. They discourage anything with a plunging neckline or a skirt shorter than ankle length. 

The reality is that when you do attend a formal military event, you will see brightly colored prom dresses, bedazzled and all, cocktail dresses above the knee, pencil skirts and blazers, asymmetrical strappy evening gowns with sweetheart or A-line necklines, and a lot of ruched fabric on the backs of strapless dresses. You’ll see a lot of pumps, stilettos, and wedges, not to mention all of the clutches, claw clips, barrettes, shawls, and statement necklaces. The formal events are, for the women invited, still an invitation to express your best self, just with more guidelines. 

The stark contrast between the matching sea of uniforms and the brightly colored dresses and pantsuits is definitely jarring, but it brings a nice pop of liveliness to the room. The most difficult part of attending a military ball may be that the regulation haircut and uniform could make it hard to relocate your date if you two happen to become separated. 

Bucknell University class of 2023