I’m going to a formal! Wait, what is a formal?

By Clarissa Wemple, Third Year Psychology

Oh, formals. I remember back when I was just a fresher and we had our very first formal (freshers’ formal!). I was super excited to be able to get to dress up and have a fancy little dinner with my new friends. However, what I didn’t know was how to dress for it, what to expect, and what a formal really even was.

Hopefully, by now, most of you already know what a formal is. But, for the few who are still confused and daunted by this seemingly ceremonious event and still don’t exactly know what it is for, here’s a quick run-down for you!  

What is a ‘Formal’?

Formals, also known as a formal dinner, is a sit down dinner, typically requiring attendees to dress in formal attire (this includes dresses on or just above the knee, formal jumpsuits, and either a dinner jacket or lounge suit) and gowns to dine.

After Fresher’s Formal – Garth represent!

Depending on which college you attend, the traditions may vary. In John’s, we usually say grace in Latin before the meal. Additionally, there is usually a ‘High Table’ at formal, which normally consists of ‘Guests of the Principal’, seated on the raised platform of Leech Hall.

In addition to that, the behaviour accepted during formals also vary between colleges. For example, some colleges have a long-standing tradition of including mass drinking games as part of their formals. However, this is not something that we do in John’s.

Other things to know about formals in John’s (accurate as of 22 November 2019):

Registration and Sign-Ups:

  • Registration – To attend a formal, you would first have to register on the SJCR website. To do this, visit https://stjohnscommonroom.org.uk/, press the Registration button on the main menu, and fill in the details.

  • Signup – Once registered, go to https://stjohnscommonroom.org.uk/formals-signup/ or go to College Life > Events > Formal Sign Up on the menu. Fill in your dietary requirements and then click submit. 


Photo Cr: St John’s College
  • Unlike other colleges, our formals are free, three course dinners that happen every week. (Although you may not be able to go every week, there are plenty of opportunities to attend formals!)

  • Normally, twice a term, we also have ‘Mega Formals’ which cost £5 and includes a cava or soft drink reception, and wine or Shloer (a non-alcoholic soft drink, sort of like sparkling grape juice) on the tables.


Formal in Leech hall
Photo Cr: St John’s College
  • It is expected that attendees arrive at Leech Hall by 6:20pm for registration and to get settled in. If you arrive later than 6:30pm, your admission has the right to be withdrawn, so don’t be tardy!

  • In John’s the use of mobile phones are also strictly not allowed, and the Food and Formals Officer has the right to apply disciplinary action, or remove you from the formal.

  • If you need to leave formal for any reason (such as a toilet break) you are to get up from your seat discreetly, bow to the high table, and take your leave. Upon coming back to formal, you’ll have to bow to the high table again and make your way back to your seat. It’s also encouraged that you do not leave for toilet breaks in pairs or groups.

Buying Drinks:

  • You can buy wine from our St John’s Wine Cellar (next to the Welfare room in Cranmer A2) as well as from local stores. Please be aware that any drinks that are brought in can be refused at the door at the discretion of the Food and Formals Officer. (For example, please don’t try to bring in stronger alcohol).
A selection of wine in our very own wine cellar!
Photo Cr: St John‘s College Wine Cellar

It may seem as if there are a ton of rules and things to remember, but after a few formals, you will get the hang of it! What I love about formals (besides the fact that it is free!), is that it gives me a reason to come back to college with my college friends and have a good time. The dessert is normally never a let-down, so if anything, I really am just motivated by that delicious dark chocolate cake that they sometimes serve!

All in all, formals are a huge part of college life and I would highly recommend attending at least once (besides the Freshers’ formal). There really aren’t a lot of universities who still have such traditional formals, so I can guarantee that it will be something you look back at after graduating and smile about.

(Huge shout-out to George, our Food and Formals officer, who has also been spectacular in giving us a summary of what to do and expect during Formals in every Formal sign-up reminder email!)

If Formals still confuse you or if you have any questions, feel free to email George at  johns.formals@durham.ac.uk

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