People who choose a bright colour or shiny fabric for their go-to formal suit are objectively the coolest people at the dinnerRuby Cline with permission for Varsity

A Level results are in. Your “uni room <3” Pinterest board is full. You’ve bought no less than three unnecessary kitchen appliances, just in case they forget to give you a kettle. Now comes the first challenge: dressing to impress at matriculation dinner – your first Cambridge formal. Unless a three course formal dinner happens to be part of your daily routine, deciding on what to wear can feel daunting, to say the least. But don’t worry! We’re here to help. Here’s how to nail formal fashion, and have fun while you’re at it!

You can get creative with your formal looksZoe Blackburn with permission for Varsity

Since the dress code for a regular formal at most colleges specifies a ‘cocktail dress’, dress-wearing folk tend to go for a midi or mini dress rather than one that goes all the way to the ankles, but a long dress or skirt with a slit can achieve the same effect. A satin wrap dress or cowl neck for example is a classic choice. Formals start around seven and finish at about nine o’clock. This means there might be times when you’ll be heading to a party or club afterward – a mini dress is a great way to ensure a quick turnaround.

It’s worth noting that since matriculation is a special occasion, you’ll be a bit more dressed up than usual. If you are at matriculation, or just a college with really aesthetic architecture, you’ll probably end up taking a lot of photos. So especially if you opt for a darker colour, choosing a satin, sequined, velvet, patterned or even ruched fabric helps your outfit stand out from the compulsory black gown, especially if you’re using flash.

The black and white matriculation uniform can still be stunningOketa Zogi Shala with permission for Varsity

Suits are the other obvious formal choice , and people who choose a bright colour or shiny fabric for their go-to formal suit are objectively the coolest people at the dinner. If you’re someone who likes to have fun with bow ties, patterned shirts or velvet lapels, this is quite literally your time to shine. If you’re feeling eccentric, you can even wear a cravat (whatever that is).

"There might be times when you’ll be heading to a party or club afterward – a mini dress is a great way to ensure a quick turnaround"

You’re expected to wear smart shoes. Any will do, but a pair of nude or black heels comes in very handy since they go with everything. If you’re walking to a far-out college, however, make sure to account for the famously cobbled Cambridge streets and try to avoid six inch stilettoes (or at least pack some blister plasters). Cambridge winters can be cold, so a pair of ankle boots can save you from toe freeze and the conundrum of whether to paint your nails. You can pretty much always get away with a flat shoe as long as it’s not a trainer.

You can make your current wardrobe work for formalsZoe Blackburn with permission for Varsity

You don’t have to spend money on new clothes at all. A simple white blouse (this one’s borrowed from my mum) and a black skirt or cigarette trousers (my work trousers) can be styled up with statement jewellery, red nails or a sparkly clutch (also my mum’s). There might be times throughout your degree when you have a supervision at six and a formal at seven, so something that works for either is great to have on standby. Depending on your college, some formal events such as your matriculation and graduation might expect you to wear black and white only, so something like this could end up being quite versatile. It’s always a good idea to check your college’s dress code as some formals have to be more formal than others!


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Even if you arrive in Cambridge with nothing to wear for your first formal, you’ll soon find the city is blessed with whole streets of charity shops. You can also borrow and share outfits with friends, and it really doesn’t matter how many times you wear the same thing. And if you’re worried about wearing the wrong thing, don’t be. Most colleges don’t have a strictly enforced dress code. This article humbly attempts to show you some popular styles, but rules are made to be broken and standing out is a lot more fun than fitting in anyway. So unless what you’re wearing is actually offensive, wear what you want, have fun and enjoy eating and laughing with your new friends.