A peek inside the infamous Oxbridge summer balls.
They’re sometimes controversial, often debauched and always decadent. But one thing the famous Oxbridge summer balls never are is boring.
The biggest event of the summer is the annual Commemoration Ball, held in turn by one of Oxford’s colleges in the third and final term, which is known as Commemoration Week. The most opulent, and excessive ball of the year, the Commemoration Ball is almost always white tie, with bright young things dressed in their finery, dancing the night away in the quads of one of Oxford’s historic colleges.
Other colleges usually hold smaller balls called Summer Balls or Trinity Balls during Commemoration Week, which tend to be black tie. With (usually) friendly rivalry between colleges running high, each tries to outdo the last to show which throw the very best, most memorable party. This year, Balliol College will also be hosting a Commemoration Ball to mark the 750th anniversary since its inception.
Clearly, the tradition is steeped in many years of history. But the entertainment on offer has certainly changed over the years, although the palpable excitement in the run up to Oxford’s summer balls remains. So, just what can guests at one of Oxbridge’s most wanton events expect?
Oxbridge students don’t have to settle for an unheard of local DJ or band for their headline act. Previous acts at Oxford’s summer balls read like a Glastonbury or Reading and Leeds festival line-up. They included The Fratellis last summer, while balls in recent years have seen performances from Coldplay, Athlete, Labrinth, The Feeling, The Streets, Tinchy Stryder, Supergrass, Dizzee Rascal and Jools Holland – an illustrious list indeed.
Guests at Oxbridge’s balls pay anywhere from £60 up to around £160 for a ticket, so they expect something a little out of the ordinary. Lady Margaret Hall’s 2013 ball featured a reptile-handler, a fire-breather and a stilt walker. St Hilda’s offered a gambling area as part of its A Day At The Races 120th commemoration ball while Brasenose gave guests the chance to test their putting skills on an indoor nine-hole golf course, something which surely proved more challenging as the night wore on.
To capture all of the diverse entertainment on offer across Oxbridge’s party scene, photo studios and booths like the funky photo booth play a big part in every ball, to make sure all guests’ unforgettable moments are just that. Friends cram into the booth together for a unique memento of festivities.
As each summer ball organising committee comes up with increasingly outlandish ideas in a bid to outdo the shenanigans of previous years, party pieces can sometimes get out of hand. This year, students at Somerville and Jesus colleges, once attended by Lady Thatcher, provoked outrage over plans to hire a live shark to be displayed in a tank during their black-tie party.
While it’s a given that there will be beautiful people, dressed beautifully, at Oxbridge’s summer balls, the dress code usually requires a little more thought than simply slinging on your dinner suit or the most exquisite dress in your wardrobe as most events are themed. Recent themes have included The Orient Express, where attendees were promised a journey throughout London, Paris, Munich and Istanbul in the Roaring Twenties and Jekyll and Hyde, where attendees were told “aristocratic, prim and proper Victorian society will be juxtaposed with the curious, the mysterious, and the bizarre.”
Drinking clearly plays a big part in any Oxbridge ball, with Champagne flowing and cocktails generally tied in with each college’s party theme. Queen’s College opted for the Forbidden Palace Cocktail – Southern Comfort, mixed with cranberry juice and lime, while Keble went for flavoured vodka, fiery absinth and Champagne jelly.
But, while each college may be diverse in its entertainment, theme and the drinks on offer, there are some things every party has in common – as Somerville and Jesus College put it on its invitations: “Decadence, debauchery and indulgence.”