Military Life Involves Ballgown Shopping: Who Knew?

For those just joining my bloggy adventure, some of my unique fashion opportunities stem from being married to a United States Airman. Until we got together, I had no idea how many social obligations military people had – holiday parties, a constant cycle of going-away and welcome-back parties, ‘dining-in’ events, and of course, military balls.

What’s a military ball, you ask? Exactly what it sounds like. It’s a formal event for all the members of a military branch (in my case, the Air Force) who are stationed at the same base. Think of it like prom: there are awards, you have to buy a ticket, the underclassmen do the decorating, everyone wears formal clothes. At an Air Force ball, though, the service members have to wear their dress uniforms, and their dates get to dress up all fancy.

If you’re thinking this sounds super cheesy, you would be correct. There’s even a photographer there, to get formal prom-style photos of whoever wants them. The military band plays after the dinner so people can dance. But it’s also very moving at times. There’s a ceremony for fallen service members before the meal, someone important or inspirational gives a speech, there’s just a lot of pomp and pageantry that makes everyone feel like they’re Part Of Something. In a job where you have to uproot your whole family, find a new place to live, and make your spouse job-hunt every few years, that feeling of togetherness is very, very helpful.

So now that you know what I’ve gotten myself into, I know what you’re all wondering, because you requested it on the BirdFashion Facebook page: What did I wear to the Air Force Ball, and how did I find it?

First thing’s first: gotta get that budget in place. Mine was $300 or less – slightly more than I normally do, because we’ll be at a different base for next year’s ball, so I can wear the same dress again next year. If you think I could have worn the same dress two years in a row at the same base, let me tell you about the lady who showed up one year in the very dress I’d worn the previous year. Glad I chose to get a new one.

Secondly, these events have strict dress codes, and not just for the men and women in uniform: a military ball requires a floor-length formal gown for female guests, and it shouldn’t be anything risque or overtly sexy-looking. It also shouldn’t be too bright, as again, it’s a formal event, not a party. My husband’s coworkers, bosses, and bosses-of-bosses attend these things, so my main goal was to make all of those people think, ‘My my, that Airman makes good life decisions; look how refined and elegant his wife is.’ Is that a petty and shallow mindset? Yep! Welcome to military life, appearances are everything, please check your opinions at the door. That system has been in place for so long that you can only try to change it long after you’ve played along with it for a good while.

Okay, so I knew what I needed, but from there, I had every intention of branching out and looking as killer as possible – this is a big thing for my husband’s job, but for me? I wanted to make him look good because I’d made myself look good, and I had every intention of having fun with this process. How often do we get to style up formal outfits for ourselves? Once year, for me. Might as well make it count!

I sent my bestie my measurements and some ideas of what I was looking for, and we set to work looking up dresses that would be in-budget and also fit me. We went back and forth for a few days, running into the age-old Goldilocks conundrum: this dress is too expensive, this dress is too small, this dress is too ‘Mormon school-teacher.’ Turns out it’s really hard to find a formal dress that’s modest, but doesn’t age you by a decade or so.

Then my bestie was like, “IDEA.” And I was like, “TELL ME.” And she was like, “Rent The Runway.”

It’s the perfect option. You can rent all manner of clothing, from ballgowns to vacation clothes, for four or eight days, for pennies on the dollar compared to retail cost. They’ve got BRANDS too – Kate Spade, Diane von Furstenburg, Oscar de la Renta – names I’d actually heard of, is what I’m saying. You can rent clothes, jewelry, and purses, then you just send it all back at the end of the rental period and move on with your life, unencumbered by a really expensive dress you can’t wear again.

I ordered the below dress, with a duplicate dress in a size larger (you never know), a pair of earrings, and a clutch, for a whopping $130. Remember how my budget was $300 or less?


Nailed. It.

RTR’s app is fantastic too; you can filter by all kinds of factors like event type, specific aspects of the dress like length, or things like color and body type to find clothes that really work for you (again – I’m not being paid for this, I legitimately love this service). I’ve already sourced another outfit for a wedding in October, and that dress is renting for a whole $30. No, I didn’t leave off a zero – thirty dollars. Their sizes range from 0 – 22, based on what clothing sizes you normally wear, not those weird-ass formal sizes. There’s even a section for ‘bump-friendly’ outfits, for the fashionable mom-to-be!

So next time you have a one-off event that you need to look extra-special for, look at Rent The Runway. They’ve done everything they can to make it fool-proof, and I promise you’re going to save money and hassle by renting instead of buying.

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