Commemoration Balls

Richard Birch ponders a uniquely Oxbridge Tradition

White tie balls are one of Oxbridge’s great anachronisms. Upon a cursory search as to what the dress code entails, I realised it was ‘The Western World’s most formal form of dress’ and that it was apparently only used in Royal events, and in Oxbridge commemoration balls. Which explains then, why it seems so utterly bizarre to see men in tails, with top hats and silk scarves, zooming down helter skelters like the aristocracy attempting to regress into a state of infantile delayed adulthood.

This state is further exemplified by the food and drink typically on offer – taking the American all-you-can-eat mentality to food, drink and so on. It is an opportunity for all guests to glut themselves until at 5:40 a.m., exhausted and wondering whether the evening’s festivities were worth their current state of tiredness and feeling slightly queasy, where they stand in the main quad and wait for a photographer to take a photo from on high (‘oh but I do look dreadful, must have the worst bags under my eyes’, they all think inwardly).

All things on which one gluts, of course, are of the absolute highest quality – genuine, not imitation, champagne greeted my own arrival at one such ball. Canapes, prawn skewers still sizzling hot in the early summer evening; paraded through in endless trains of excess back and forth from the kitchens; gin bars, cocktail mixers, and my personal favourite, an old Oxford punt filled with iced water and a veritable ocean of bottled Peronis.

The entertainment was likewise of a uniformly high quality, featuring the pop-rock of Circa Waves (who seemed slightly bemused at the whole proceedings, saying, ‘Oxford… (waiting for a cheer) Cambridge… (waiting for a sneer) now I’m out… out of banter.’) familiar Oxford acts and even the college’s own band. A light show came on at midnight, projecting on to the walls of the college’s main quad; a quite remarkable show, all in all.

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As the night wore on, people became progressively sweatier, the suits and elaborate extravagant elegant dresses frayed at the hems, muddied round the ankles, graying with ash marks from the endless train of cigarettes that sent plumes of smoke upward providing a contrast against the darkening sky; which in turn could be seen to rise sink downward upon the gaudily lit battlements of the college. Indeed, it must be admitted that there can be no more beautiful setting for such an event as an Oxford college – steeped in history and in the lineage of people who’ve trod the same steps you tread through those illustrious halls, these parties feel both distinctly modern in their entertainment; but also their anachronisms allow you, for one night, to tap into something older than yourself.


  1. ‘[White tie] was apparently only used in Royal events, and in Oxbridge commemoration balls.’

    Eh? Livery company shindigs; non-royal, non-Oxbridge formal dinners and balls; and various other formal evening events have all adopted a white tie dress code. Black tie only really came into favour in the early twentieth century when the wearing of dinner jackets became more widespread.

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