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Formal Functions


By Malka A. Older

So you finally caved in and bought a tux. Or you got your credit card bill for dinner at the Four Seasons, a corsage/boutiniere, a cab home and two tickets to the Citystep formal. Or you've been wondering what to do Saturday night when all your roommates are at your house winter formal with their boyfriends. One way or another, Harvard's obsession with formals has probably come to your attention.

So what's the big deal about getting dressed up in tight, uncomfortable clothes and paying exorbitant prices for the privelege of bouncing around a fancy ballroom to the same music that you're embarrased to admit you own on a mix tape at home? Why would anyone want to do the "Macarena" in high heels?

Part of the attraction, of course, is the formal attire. There's a certain thrill to playing dress-up, practicing for the company Christmas party or campaign fundraiser in the distant (read: post-graduation) future. And after slouching through the Yard countless times in jeans and a parka, we all want to show that we can shine a little when we make the effort.

With formals, as with peek-a-boo, the fun is in both seeing and being seen. We want to show off our fine feathers and see how everyone else looks. Formal attire brings out the best and the worst in fashion sense: like the Oscars, even the most boring formal can be enlivened by fashion disasters.

Which brings out the most important question about formals: What do I wear? Hopefully you chose your high school prom dress wisely.

There's always the old stand-by, the perennial Little Black Dress (LBD). Cristina M. Delgadillo '99, who has been to six Harvard formals, lauds the LBD for its practicality.

"A little black dress is a good idea in college because you're on a limited budget and you can't mooch off of your parents really and a black dress is good for a lot of things," she says.

Of course, this means that you won't be the only one wearing one. Originality, however, can mean tempting the fashion police and straining your wallet.

There are other ways to add versatility to your closet, especially if your roommate is about your size.

"Swapping dresses is a cheap way to maximize the amount of resources available to you," says Delgadillo.

Even with a little help from your friends, however, formals can be expensive, especially with so many happening each year. The legendary goal of attending every house formal in a given year is a Herculean task not only logistically but financially as well.

One junior familiar with arranging Harvard formals wrote in an e-mail that the events are expensive because of the cost of renting space.

"Places in Boston love charging thousands of dollars for us to use their second-class ballrooms," she says.

The student cites the multiple costs of holding a formal including food, alcohol, staff, security and transportation fees.

"The only way to defray costs is to charge exorbitant prices for tickets. Either that or hold up a bank," she says.

Of course, the high prices charged by such establishments can be avoided, but only at a cost. It might mean waltzing in the State House, which is nice but intimidating (and believe me, they keep all the interesting offices locked when they rent it out). Or worse, it could be a fiasco like this year's Citystep formal at the Children's Museum, which was overcrowded, overlit and understaffed. It's also just not as much fun climbing on the giant telephone if you're wearing spike heels, a strapless bra and a lot of sequins.

Despite all these inconveniences, formals can be a lot of fun. As Delgadillo says, "it's just a chance to get dressed up and to look nice."

But as much as we love wearing eyeliner, hosiery and hairspray every once in a while, we can still be glad to get home and change into sweats.

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