May Balls have taken place for over 150 years in Cambridge and are the highlight of many students’ years; these balls are formal events steeped in tradition, and Caius May Ball is no exception. Given that no May Balls have taken place since 2019, we understand that many people (particularly undergraduates) are unsure what to expect, so we have prepared this short guide to our dress code to help guests choose what to wear. There are two options for each dress code. Anyone of any gender can choose either option.
Please note, gowns are not required for the Ball.
Historically, black tie was a semi-formal dress code worn at evening events which were more casual than a formal dinner or ball, with white tie being the dress code of choice for May Balls. In modern times, black tie is often viewed as a formal dress code in its own right and is now the attire of choice for many people at May Balls. We understand that not everyone owns a dinner jacket or evening shirt, and it is thus acceptable to wear a white turn-down collar shirt, a black business suit, black socks and black business shoes alongside a black bow-tie and cummerbund (both of which can be sourced cheaply online). For those wishing to dress more traditionally, we provide two options:
Option 1: A dinner jacket with single or double-breasted silk lapels, matching trousers with a single line down each leg, a white doubled-cuffed evening shirt with a turn-down collar, a black silk bow-tie, black socks, white pocket square and black polished or patent leather shoes. The beltline should not be visible and should be covered by a cummerbund or waistcoat. Given the less formal nature of black tie, there is some room for flexibility: some people choose to substitute one item (bow-tie, pocket square, cummerbund or waistcoat) for something colourful or wear a velvet dinner jacket. Wearing multiple coloured items or items of clashing colours is not usually advisable. Some people choose to wear wing-collar shirts, although these should generally be reserved for white tie outside the United States, as they leave a conspicuous line of black bow-tie visible around the collar.
Option 2: A floor-length (or close to floor-length) dress. Cocktail dresses and other informal dresses ending above the knees may not be appropriate for a formal event of this nature. High-heeled shoes are the shoes of choice, but given the length of the ball is it perfectly acceptable to bring flat shoes to change into.
Having remained largely unchanged since the origins of May Balls in the 19th Century, white tie (full evening dress) is the most formal and elegant dress code in many Western countries. It is typically reserved for formal dinners and balls. Although this is the traditional attire for May Balls, it is expensive to buy or hire and there is no expectation to wear it. There are two options available.
Option 1: A square-cut evening tailcoat, matching trousers with two vertical stripes (unlike the one stripe in black tie), a white single-cuffed starched wing-collar dress shirt with studs and cufflinks, white marcella bow tie, white marcella waistcoat, black patent leather shoes, black silk socks and white or cream gloves. A white pocket square is often added, and a top hat and white scarf may be worn outdoors. Importantly, the shirt/waistcoat should not protrude beneath the front of the tailcoat, with trousers high enough to lie behind the lapels; please compare how Obama and Trump attended UK state dinners as examples of what to do and not to do, respectively. Unlike black tie, white tie is subject to strict conventions and there is little room for flexibility, although flair can be added in the form of a pocket-watch or a boutonniere (a flower in the left lapel - fake flowers should be avoided). Wrist-watches should be avoided and canes quickly become cumbersome.
Option 2: A floor-length ballgown, typically of a single fabric, with optional white gloves. Jewellery, tiaras and fur are popular additions. High-heeled shoes are the shoes of choice, but given the length of the ball is it perfectly acceptable to bring flat shoes to change into.