Harry Potter Filming Locations: Christ Church's Dining Hall. Photo courtesy of ChiralJon via Flickr Commons.

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What is Formal Hall? University of Oxford Traditions and Practices

Harry Potter Filming Locations: Christ Church's Dining Hall. Photo courtesy of ChiralJon via Flickr Commons.

Formal Hall is one of the oldest University of Oxford traditions, one where students wear formal gowns and attend a three-course meal. In this article, we’ll cover everything you’d ever want to know about Formal Hall – from its history and what to wear to the etiquette you’ll be expected to follow if you attend. 

What is Formal Hall and Why Is It an Important Oxfordian Tradition?

The University of Oxford is a hundred-year-old institution, so it’s no surprise it has many customs and traditions. Some of them, like the Tortoise Race, are a bit… quirky?  And charming, of course. But you also got practices like Formal Hall, a practice that survives from long ago. o, what is it all about?

Formal Hall is, in fact, the practice of wearing a formal gown and attending a three-course meal (that typically also includes wine). This is quite a surprise for many new students, so let’s go through a bit of what you can expect if you’re attending. 

What Do You Wear to Formal Hall?

Not all Oxford University colleges require their students to wear formal gowns for Formal Hall (this was the case before, but not anymore). However, some, like Brasenose College and Worcester College, still do. 

These gowns resemble those worn by students in the 12th century, but some things have changed. For your formal gown, you won’t need to worry about hoods and fur collars… and you won’t have to bring a ceremonial sword!

For those colleges that expect their students to wear a formal gown, here are the main differences in styles you can expect to bring to Formal Hall:

  • Undergraduates and visiting students: The Commoner’s Gown, a waist-length frock coat that resembles a vest. These gowns also commonly receive the memorable name “arse freezers“. 
  • Graduate students and faculty members: A knee-length or floor-length gown (depending if you’re the first or the second), often adorned with swag like college badges. 

Of course, you don’t wear just the gowns to Formal Hall. Underneath, you can have a traditional outfit. Typically, smart trousers and skirts (just in case, it’s better to avoid jeans as some colleges are not entirely happy with their informality). 

The Etiquette of Oxford's Formal Hall

The first rule of Formal Hall is… never, ever be late. Not even fashionably late. For if you are, you might actually be turned away! And in some cases, will even have to apologize publically to everyone in the room. Plus, the College Principal will expect a written apology, too, so… get there in time.

The next etiquette rule for Formal Hall at Oxford is to quietly find a set and make some (also quiet) conversation. You shouldn’t raise your voice, and laughing and shouting are frowned upon. 

Even though the University of Oxford has many international students, you should also be ready to recite a Latin Christian prayer right before dinner. Well, a Senior Fellow will; but you should learn it nonetheless, so you know when grace is over and you can sit down.

A few more etiquette considerations if you attend an Oxford Formal Hall: Do not start eating until everyone has been served (this is just good manners everywhere), work the silverware from the outside in, and engage with those around you! (again, quietly).

Dining Hall, Balliol College, Oxford. Image courtesy of Randy Connolly via Flickr Commons.
Dining Hall, Balliol College, Oxford. Image courtesy of Randy Connolly via Flickr Commons.

Who Can Attend Oxford's Formal Hall?

Formal Halls are for students and visiting students only. However, these rules of etiquette should apply to any guest night or three-course meals. You can be a guest of a student or non-student member, and there’s sometimes a guest night charge you’ll have to pay to attend. Make sure you book for Formal Hall well in advance. 

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