The end of black tie and the rise of the anti-ball

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szentek vic party
Photo: Szentek

It began quietly.

In early 2015, the iconic May Ball ticket purchasing process fell flat. Students queued in tents throughout the night, only to witness their well-rested peers arrive at 10 am with cash in hand, equally capable of buying tickets. Further insult was added to injury when a slew of unsold tickets were released on FIXR in the weeks before the ball.

A semester later, the Fellowship’s unsexily named “602” Ball failed to clear a Christmas Ball-sized hurdle. Although the event itself was marvellous by most accounts, the St Andrews student body chose to spend its money elsewhere, a portent of frugality that would continue to haunt committees in the months to come.

Now in the new academic year, St Andrews’ rapidly eroding events scene is evident in the latest marketing fad to hit our newsfeeds: the anti-ball. Before delving into the details of this anti-ball phenomenon, we can return to a time that some may call pre-historic. The phrase “Waity Katie” was no more than a quickening in the mind of some Daily Mail reporter, and DRA was but two years young. The Saint had yet to launch an events section, the FS table ballot did not exist and the Kate Kennedy Club Charity May Ball offered unlimited free alcohol with every ticket.

Times have changed.

2006-may-ball-website
Photo: Official May Ball website, 2006

In 2006, the St Andrews Charity Fashion Show was held in Caird Hall, Dundee. Tickets ranged from VIP (£45) to single balcony seats (£10), with a couple of tiers in between. Attendance was estimated to be upwards of 1,300 people, a record number for the 14-year- old show. FS tickets now go for £90 and £70, a change that cannot be attributed to basic inflation.

It could be argued that in this bygone era, the glittering firmament of the St Andrews social scene did not shine quite as brightly as it does today. The glamour of Fendi or Vivienne Westwood had yet to grace the runways of Lower College Lawn and Kinkell Byre. Now, household brand names envelop our wristbands and fill our goodie bags. Just as chain restaurants have appeared along the town’s cobbled streets, our events have become heavily commercialised and our reputation has spread across the UK.

I was at a party in New York over last Christmas holiday. In a room full of Americans, I managed to locate a group of British exchange students from Exeter. We scoured each other’s Facebook profiles in search of mutual friends (surprisingly, we shared several). As one girl scrolled down my newsfeed, she noticed that a student fashion show had made a post regarding committee interviews. “Surely you just volunteer for a position?” she said, bemused. “Why do you need to interview?”

Another Exeter girl laughed. “Don’t you know St Andrews?” she asked. “They take these things very seriously.”

And we do. Committees no longer derive satisfaction from a mention in The Courier; they pitch to Vogue and The New York Times, striving for accomplishments that many professionals never attempt. Since Will and Kate, St Andrews has assumed a position on the world stage, playing a role founded on notoriety and elitism. As the stakes rise higher, so do the prices.

don't walk fashion show
Photo: DONT WALK Charity Fashion Show

Perhaps the most notable feature of pre-contemporary St Andrews was the “famously free” May Ball. Unlimited food and drink were once included with each ticket, which in 2007 went for £55 (classic), £70 (gold) or £90 (dinner). The Club attributed this perk to “sponsorship and careful spending,” two tenets that they have surely not disregarded over the years. Yet the bar is now decidedly un-open, a loss felt by alcoholics across the nation.

May Ball 2016 did not lack guests (in part due to Ball Convenor Fernando Maluf’s natural flair for marketing), but it has followed the trend of St Andrews events giving less in exchange for more. Nowadays, May Ball gives us Duke Dumont and Julio Bashmore, but to many guests this may not seem a fair trade.

Similarly, Welly Ball has undergone significant changes since its inception. Established by the Clay Pigeon Shooting Club president as a St Andrews Challenge after-party, the ball has taken on a life of its own. It is not necessary to delve into historical records in search of evolution: In 2014, dinner tickets were priced at £55 each. In 2016, this price edged to £60. Now, tickets go for £65.

No obvious changes have been made to the ball itself. It remains a Kinkell Byre-based party with a reasonably sized dinner and a cheap after-party. If the pricing trend continues, however, we may be paying £80 by Welly Ball 2019.

All this being said, we may finally return to the aforementioned anti-ball. A counterculture has emerged in St Andrews, one that the student body appears to be cautiously embracing. Szentek, Masque-Rave and Goat House are all upcoming events that have made “not a ball” their selling points. This is a deliberate move against the mainstream, and it may signify the start of a larger shift in St Andrews society.

szentek vic party
Photo: Szentek

“No black tie,” vows Szentek’s official event description. “We don’t even know what VIP is,” adds the committee in a Facebook post. “We just want to party.” The ruin bar experience has made a name for itself by actively defying all stereotypes associated with a Kinkell event. It exists because May Ball exists, because we queue for Christmas Ball and because black tie is a weekly experience in St Andrews. Already sold-out of early bird tickets, Szentek is paving the way for the anti-ball.

On Szentek’s heels, Masque-Rave has emerged as the surprise contender of the November event season. Initially advertised as Masquerade Ball, the committee launched a rebranding mere weeks before the event was due to be held. “St Andrews didn’t need another ball in November,” announced the cover photo caption. “So, we are starting a whole new night.” This sudden change in tactics could be attributed either to a desire to fight the power or to simple logic: Xavier Ball recently announced its cancellation, citing budget issues. If Masquerade Ball wished to avoid the same fate, it would need to bring something new to the table.

Goat House hopes to do just that. Heat and Tea House are both outstanding additions to the town’s nightlife, but they are far from casual events. High heels, jackets and the occasional tie would not be out of place on the Rule’s dance floor, an upscale aesthetic that contributes to the “formal” atmosphere of the night. Held on Friday 4 November, Goat House intends to transform the Rule into the most casual venue known to man: a frat house.

The event itself is named in honour of the television show Blue Mountain State, which chronicles the antics of an American college football team. The team christens their base “the Goat House,” and it is a haven of hip-hop, letterman jackets and red Solo cups. In its St Andrews iteration, Goat House will feature the expected staples of an American frat party: jungle juice upon arrival, beer pong in the back room and music that will bring the house down.

Above all, the committee stresses the casual dress code. “Wear a t-shirt,” says committee member Hunter Pruitt. “Put some face paint on. In St Andrews, people can show up to a party and look like they just came from dinner at the Adamson. That’s not what we’re going for.”

At this point, a frat party may be exactly what St Andrews needs. Countless committees have played a game of follow-the-leader, attempting to replicate the success of their predecessors. As evidenced by recent failures, these reproductions pale in comparison to the originals.

Opening Ball and May Ball are the only two balls that can ride their own coattails; the KK has spent 90 years crafting a brand that is synonymous with St Andrews society. Everyone else must differentiate or desist, lest they lose themselves in a crowd of black tie and Blackhorn. Now, briefly return to FS 2006. The venue was booked, models selected, clothes tailored. Ticket sales opened to the general public, operating via email bookings in the absence of FIXR. “I hope there is something in there for everybody,” wrote the committee on the Facebook event page.

Not quite yet. But maybe next time there will be.

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