The ultimate guide to formal dressing in Durham


As formal and fashion show season descends upon us, Durham students are left facing the age-old question: What on earth am I going to wear? While I am a girl with a wardrobe full of dresses, I am often left feeling like Cinderella the night before the ball (or formal). And I find myself rummaging at the back of my wardrobe trying to piece something last-minute together, waiting for my fairy godmother to waltz in and wave her magic wand, dressing me in exactly what I am looking for. But alas, my fairy godmother is yet to appear, so I am here to take matters into my own hands. Gone are the days of wondering whether to go long and risk tripping over myself, or to go short and freeze in the cold Durham climate. So don’t fret, I present to you the ultimate guide to Durham formalwear: 

So where can you find a last-minute outfit that’s not yet another fast fashion purchase that you can only wear once before it falls apart? Well, many sustainable alternatives do the trick: 

  1. Don’t be afraid of trawling the Charity Shops. While you may think there’s no hope in trawling through second-hand clothing, charity shops contain many treasures and are often overlooked. For both the ladies and gents, I have stumbled upon both brand new Zara dresses on North Road, in the British Heart Foundation, and a full suit in the Children’s Society. Not to mention one of my favourite finds was a pair of bright red Reiss heels worth around £200 but priced at a mere £15 in Oxfam. 
  2. Borrow or rent an outfit! Ask a friend for clothing you can swap or think about renting out an outfit. Durham has its very own dress rental service called ‘ReDress’, not only run by fellow students, but the proceeds also raise money for charity and is open to all years and all colleges. If you want to try designer for the night, search ‘By Rotation’ and you can find many discount codes plastered all over the internet. It is normally 1/3 of the price, if not less, than buying a new dress.   
  3. Repeat an outfit. If you look good in an outfit, why on earth would you only wear it once? 

To avoid a fashion faux pas, there are slight nuances in the rules and regulations around the event etiquette. Here is my exclusive advice after attending many different types of formal events during my time at Durham: 

  • Fashion shows: Fashion shows aren’t an everyday event, so feel free to push the boat out with a more creative black tie outfit. College fashion shows are more relaxed, where I’d say most people go for a short dress, although this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to conform to this rule. 
  • Fight night: Again, I would say is a more relaxed event, think black tie or cocktail dresses. There’s normally a mix of longer and shorter dresses, although realistically by the end of the night, no one will even remember what you were wearing, so have fun with it! 
  • College Formal: This is probably the most relaxed of events (although slightly college-dependent) with a range of smart casual summer dresses, and cocktail attire. 
  • Balls: I would urge you to go all out with formal gear for this one. This is an opportunity to properly get dressed up. Stick to your suits and ball gowns for this one. For context, I wore my old prom dress to my first-year summer ball and I fit right in. 

And finally, here are some of my top tips, don’t limit yourself to a dress or plain suit because let’s be real, at this point everyone has the same rat and boa dress.  

  1. Jumpsuits are in. Whether it’s the classic Peachy Den all-in-one Monki silky number, these are more than acceptable pieces for formal wear. My top tip would be to wear chunky heels with a wide-leg jumpsuit to dress it up and balance out the outfit. 
  2. Suits aren’t just for boys. Think Alchemy London or No Emotions satin trousers. I love to wear vintage Karen Millen, they have amazing, tailored waistcoats that can be dressed up or down. 
  3. Suits aren’t the only option for boys. We seem to think that guys can just whip out the same old outfit every time and can get away with it. But I have seen everything from trews (Scottish tartan trousers) to colourful bowties and even a bright orange corduroy suit. So, boys don’t limit yourself and try something new. 

Formal fashion doesn’t have to be daunting, and it doesn’t have to drain your bank account. With savvy shopping and some creative confidence, you can pull together a last-minute outfit that is sustainable and stylish.  

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