How to succeed at formal without really trying

Amelia Oakley 25 January 2015

With floating gowns, candlelit banqueting halls, and silver service, formal hall isn’t something we’re all used to – or will ever get used to for that matter. There’s the endless struggles of choosing the correct cutlery to use for each course, passing your plate back to the server without burning the sleeve of your gown on a rogue candle, and (if you’re self-service) the endless difficulty of judging how many vegetables it is acceptable to take. After a term at Cambridge, blind optimism means I now consider myself a seasoned professional and thus a veritable authority on how to succeed at formal without revealing yourself to be a pan fried salmon, accompanied by hollandaise sauce, out of water.


Number one wine related tip is simply to attend a college where you don’t have to pay corkage. But if that wasn’t top of your agenda when choosing your college, never fear, there are always ways to get around paying outrageous amounts for the pleasure of getting horrendously drunk at a three course meal. Head down to the local wine merchants and check out their student deals, or maybe try to haggle (if you don’t ask, you don’t get). But most importantly don’t forget the golden rule: Sainsbury’s basics is for forgetting, not for formal.


There comes a point in most formals where a fellow of an unfathomable age creaks up to high table and recites an utterly unintelligible string of Latin words. Haven’t got a clue what they’re saying? Don’t worry, nobody does, and quite sincerely, nobody really cares. Just stand stoically, sing some Living La Vida Loca in your head, and avoid eye contact with everyone in the room – unless you want succumb to an uncontrollable laughing fit during the chorus of Deo Gracias.

Play it Cool

A challenging feat to achieve when you are wearing a – let’s face it – completely ridiculous and oversized garment, which just wasn’t designed for eating without plonking an entire sleeve in your starter. When you’re at another college’s formal, and aren’t entirely sure if the contents of the main course is edible, just keep smiling. When the waiter forgets to warn you the plate is hot and your hand subsequently sizzles with pain, just keep smiling. And when the head butler keeps looking over disapprovingly at your raucous behaviour, just keep on smiling – he won’t realise that you’re completely drunk.

Break the rules

Formals are, of course, formal occasions, with traditions, expectations, and most importantly, rules. What would formal be without a bit of sly pennying to spice up proceedings? Not forgetting of course, the pinnacle of pennying – the 5 penny – and those rare opportunities to dunk your entire face into your dessert, or even better, to force someone else to. In the words of Sid Vicious, ‘cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don't let them take you alive’ (or in this case, don’t let them kick you out during the bread course….not that that’s ever happened to me).

Go to formal at other colleges

There are many variations of college bingo which can be played, but amongst the best is formal bingo. Venture into the halls of Johns or Trinity to see what the hype’s all about, pop up the hill to one of the modern colleges and dine overlooked by the rather imposing feminist art of Medwards, or if you’re brave enough, take on the challenge of Caius, and decide for yourself whether the food really is as bad as the survivors say.


Want to learn something else today? Learn how (not) to catch a plane…