I Refuse to Shame Military Wives Over Their Ball Gown Choices

Ali Arbuckle, dressed as Cinderella, and her date retired Tech. Sgt. Rudolf Horak dance during the Hill Air Force Base Air Force Ball. (U.S. Air Force/Alex R. Lloyd)
Ali Arbuckle, dressed as Cinderella, and her date retired Tech. Sgt. Rudolf Horak dance during the Hill Air Force Base Air Force Ball. (U.S. Air Force/Alex R. Lloyd)

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.

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