So, what are formals all about?

Ruby Tomlinson

Each term, the different Durham colleges host events called ‘formals’. These usually coincide with a major holiday or celebration, such as Christmas, St Patrick’s day, Burns’ Night, or last weekend, Lunar New Year. Although the events are different at each college, they tend to follow a similar structure: arrive dressed in formal clothing (for example, a nice dress or trousers), be seated for a three-course meal, and then stay afterwards in your college for various entertainment. My college is Van Mildert, which isn’t a gowned college, so we just wear formal clothes. However, if you’re in a gowned college such as Castle (University College) you may need a gown to go to these formal events, which you wear over the top of your formal clothes (think Harry Potter). A list of colleges that are ‘gowned’ can be found here.

Van Mildert themed formal for Lunar New Year

Who goes to formals?

Students from all different years at colleges can go to formals, so it’s a great chance to meet people from different age groups and get to know the college community better. On top of this, you can bring guests if you want so friends from other colleges can come – you usually all sign up in a big group and get to sit with your friends. Even though I’m a third-year now and don’t live in college, formals are my favourite times to revisit college. My group of friends have been trying to go to as many as possible since the disruptions from Covid-19!

Event sign-ups are released a week before, so you get to look at the menu and theme and decide if you want to sign up – if spaces are too full, there is usually a priority system like finalist or fresher priority. You get an email a few days before if you’re selected, and then everyone immediately gets on the group chat to try and work out what we’re wearing! It’s fun to have a chance to dress up nicely and wear things you wouldn’t usually, but if you ever find yourself short my friends and I often switch dresses and tops so that we get to wear lots of different things without having to buy new clothes. Durham also has lots of charity shops that are good to hunt through for sustainable options for dressing up!

we often swap outfits for formals so there’s no need to buy anything new

Tasty food

My most recent formal was Lunar New Year at Van Mildert College, which was a great night – I took a few photos which are included in this blog to give you an idea of what a formal and the food looks like! We were served hot and sour soup for starters after we had a speech from the College Principal and one of his guests welcoming the New Year in Chinese, main with rice balls, chicken and steamed veg. During the meal, there are certain rules in play, such as men keeping their jackets on, but these are all explained by the JCR President (Junior Common Room) at the start of the formal and add to the atmosphere of the occasion. It’s made to feel very different from a normal college dinner, but of course, there is still lots of chatting and laughing: at our Mildert Christmas formal each year every table stands up in turns and sings the 12 days of Christmas together, it feels really festive! After our Lunar New Year formal, we had karaoke in Mildert Bar with the exec of college such as the JCR president and chair, but also the Principal. It’s great to see how the different levels of college, staff and students all come together at these events.

Hopefully, this blog explains a little more about college formals. If you’re coming to Durham you can look forward to experiencing your first formal for yourself in whatever college you go to! It’s just one of the great aspects of college life that you can enjoy here.

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Ruby Tomlinson

Hi, my name is Ruby, a recent graduate in English at Van Mildert College. When in Durham I loved getting outside to see the beauty spots the city has to offer, so you'll see many of my blogs offer recommendations! I take part in lots of extra-curriculars such as ball planning, sailing, dance and charity work, so I'm looking forward to sharing my experience and I hope you find it useful.

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