Sartorial Musings: The dilemmas of Formal Hall dressing


Formal Hall. This weekly or twice weekly ritual of getting smashed in grandiose surroundings is arguably one of the highlights of Oxford life. And yet the same question looms its ugly head each time I book in: ‘Yes, but what will I wear?’ There are a couple of reasons why dressing for formal hall is so problematic. For starters, etiquette demands that you wear the sorts of clothes which – unless you go to a lot of weddings – you are unlikely to wear on many other occasions and therefore probably won’t have an entire wardrobe full of. Steering a straight (preferably minimalistic) line between the banks of Bridge-wear and Bridget-Jones’s-mum-would-wear is about as easy as coxing Christchurch Regatta in the snow. But a good rule of thumb is to find an outfit in which you will neither scandalise, nor seem to be emulating, long-serving members of the SCR. That usually involves a moderately high heel and either a hemline that sits just above the knee or a bit more leg and a pair of opaque tights. Shorts are out. Once you’ve got the level of formality down, there’s a further hurdle to jump. You have to somehow look fabulous under an academic gown. No piece of cake, but it can be done. The golden rule here is to keep the dress/skirt fairly fitted. Not butt-cheek-grazing bodycon, but tight enough to reassure your fellow diners that there is a human figure somewhere under that black fabric*. As for the top half, I’ve found that a simple boat or crew-neck is the order of the day: halter neck or one-shoulder tops lose their lustre when half-obscured beneath a gown. The deliciousness of the perfect formal dress is in the detail. A slim fit, a striking colour and grown-up embellishment make for a recipe none could fail to admire.