Does the thought of attending a formal function at the Mess terrify you? Do you know what to wear? How to eat? When to stand and when to sit? Formal mess functions are one of the real treats of military life, but they can also be intimidating. They are something that civilians rarely get to experience, and they should be enjoyed. If military life is new to you, or if recent promotions have put you on the guest list – fret not – we’ve got all of the information you need to get the most out of these time-honoured events.
The first thing you need to know is that when the function is for couples, the correct term is “Dining-In”. Typically, mess dinners are only attended by military members. Traditions vary from regiment to regiment and amongst the services, but rules are somewhat more relaxed at a Dining-in. For example, at a Mess Dinner no one can leave the table during the meal. Generally, this rule is waved for spouses at a Dining-In (particularly expectant mothers). Your spouse needs to have familiarized himself* with the customs of the mess, so that he can support you throughout the evening.
It’s critically important that an RSVP be given by the deadline stated. This is actually your spouse’s job, as the military member. Attendance by the members is generally compulsory, while the spouse’s attendance is optional. It is recommended that before you decide that these sorts of functions aren’t for you, that you actually attend one. Those organizing Dining-Ins go to great effort to ensure that everyone has a good time. Consistently snubbing them is poor form and implies that you have no interest in your spouse’s colleagues.
In terms of dress, a Dining-In is a formal affair and should be treated as such. Men should wear Mess Dress or black tie. Women should wear Mess Dress or gowns. Cocktail-length dresses can be appropriate if they lean toward the more formal side of things. You’ll find that over the years, you will develop a nice collection of gowns and clutches for these events. Repeating gowns is perfectly acceptable, but you will want to have more than one in your wardrobe if you attend formal functions often.
You should arrive at the Mess no later than 30 minutes prior to the start of the dinner. Your invitation will likely have stated something like “6 o’clock for 7”. This means that you could arrive as early as 6 o’clock, but no later than 6:30. If it is a cooler evening, the gentleman (whether he is the military member or not) should take the coat or wrap of the lady to the cloakroom. Immediately find the seating plan and determine where you are seated. The seating plan should be posted in an obvious location near the anteroom or lounge.
After that you will proceed into the anteroom or lounge for pre-dinner drinks. It is critical to point out that you should really only partake of one beverage at this point (assuming your beverage contains alcohol). Wine will be generously served at dinner, so one needs to pace oneself. Dinner can go on for up to four hours, and no one wants to spend it beside someone’s sloshed spouse! Speeches may take place at this point. Fifteen minutes prior to dinner, a bugler will play the “Quarter Call”, or an announcement will be made that you have 15 minutes until dinner. If you need to use the ladies room, this is the time to do it. There will be another announcement at five minutes prior.
When it’s time to enter the dining room, each gentleman should escort a lady to the table. Sometimes, it is customary for the gentleman to escort the lady seated to his right. Other times, the custom is to escort your spouse or guest. Your spouse should check ahead of time as to the customs of his Mess. You will then stand behind your chair (do not sit down), until the head table has entered the room and Grace has been said by the Padre or designate. As you face the head table, you will notice that there is a fellow at the left hand side of it with a gavel. He is the PMC for the evening and sets the pace of things. Generally speaking, when the gavel is used, you are to pay attention. You will also notice that usually there is a place set for fallen comrades somewhere in the dining room.
When you are seated for dinner, everything you will need to get through the meal is there for you. Use cutlery from the outside in. Servers will know which glass to fill with wine, but generally, the smallest is for red wine, the slightly larger is for white wine and the largest one is meant for water.
After everyone has finished eating, the mess staff will clear everything from the table except for the port glasses. If your spouse plans on staying in the military for any length of time, the fact of the matter is that you will need to learn to like port; however, for those who do not drink you can substitute port with a soft drink. You will be passed the port decanter from the person on your right. Fill your glass and then pass the decanter to the person on your left. For those not drinking, just pass the decanter along. Generally, the decanter is not to touch the table. Leave your port glass alone until the toasts are given – absolutely no sipping allowed. The first will be the Loyal Toast to the Queen. Various other toasts will follow, and these vary from service to service and regiment to regiment. Once a toast has been made, you will stand, repeat the toast and then take a small sip from your port glass before sitting down again. If you are seated beside someone with good manners, he will hopefully help you with your chair. Depending on how good a job your mother-in-law did, you may want to suggest to your spouse that he do the same for ladies on his side of the table (make this suggestion ahead of time at home, and not right there at the table). When a toast to the ladies is given, only the men stand.
At that point, if there is a band present, regimental marches will ensue. The band plays the marches for each regiment/unit/branch/service represented. The order of these marches is important and those represented by any given march must stand for its duration. Sometimes speeches are made after the marches, if they weren’t made earlier in the lounge. The PMC will announce when the dinner is over and you are free to get up from your seat.
Generally, guests will proceed back to the lounge for coffee or after-dinner drinks. At this point, you are usually free to go if you wish. It’s very important that you not just slink out of there, but take the time to bid the appropriate farewells. You (along with your spouse) should certainly say goodnight to the Commanding Officer or RSM and their spouses, as well as other distinguished guests as appropriate. Gentlemen will then proceed to the cloakroom and then help their lady with her coat or wrap. Naturally, the well-mannered will have arranged for a taxi ahead of time, if needed, so that there is no risk of impaired driving.
Once you are home, you can kick off those shoes that have been killing you all night, and realize that you had nothing to worry about. Formal mess events are one of the things that make military life interesting – and who doesn’t love an excuse to put on a gown? Or buy a new one?
* For the sake of ease, and to avoid the excessive use of he/she, this article is written under the assumption that the referred-to spouse is female. We fully appreciate that this person could be male, and as such, all of the tips outlined here apply equally to men and women.
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