I knew my experience at Cambridge University would be far different from my four years at Berkeley when the suggested list of items to bring overseas inquired: Do you have enough formal wear?
My suitcase overflowed with ripped denim and shabby sweaters, so the answer, definitively, was no.
This was just the first of my missteps and errors on my way to earning a master’s in English. Gone were the kids attending class barefoot, the animal rights activists covered in red paint, the comforting wafts of marijuana from Telegraph Avenue. In Cambridge, crumbling signs command students and tourists alike to PLEASE KEEP OFF THE GRASS, and everyone actually obeys. A welcoming ceremony for new students took place in a chapel older than the state of California.
The university’s various colleges host formal dinners nearly every evening, where students dress to the nines and eat five-course meals. One of my first opportunities to attend came on Halloween weekend, when graduate students from King’s College, where I was studying, were invited to a “Halloween formal.” The invitation urged elaborate costumes and promised champagne. A friend encouraged me to join the fun, and I reluctantly bought a ticket.
Halloween has never really been my thing. Each October at Berkeley, throngs of students adorned with glitter, face paint, and vodka-imbued self-confidence swarm the frat houses for a weekend of vaguely Halloween-inspired frivolity. But I was always filled with dread. What costume should I wear? Should it be ironic? Political? Provocative?
My first Halloween in Berkeley, I chose the road most traveled and dressed as a “cat.” I sported a cheetah-print dress and whiskers hastily drawn onto my cheeks with eyeliner. One look at my roommate, a perfect Ariel (the Little Mermaid), and I felt so self-conscious that I decided to stay home. I fell asleep in my costume and woke up with my poor-man’s whiskers smeared across my pillows.
This formal dinner seemed like a chance for redemption. My Cambridge classmates had told me that Americans are known for an uncool and “very American” obsession with Halloween. Several had already claimed that I was the “most American” person they had ever met (I was too appalled by this to question it), so surely this “American-ness” would translate into some sort of Halloween success. I would be casual, but put-together. I would be fun. I would not be a cat.
The night of the dinner, I tried on half my wardrobe in search of the right look. I pulled out a floor-length black velvet dress, only to discard it—Halloween couldn’t possibly be that formal. Hats and skirts went flying. Time was running short. My eyes fell on my brand-new Adidas track pants, blue with red stripes down the leg. Three minutes later, I took off for the dinner dressed as “an American gymnast” (don’t ask which one): sweatpants, crop top, headband, and white tennis shoes. I was ready for Halloween.
I had grossly miscalculated what “Halloween formal” meant. I strolled up to a throng of black suits and orange-and-white gowns tastefully adorned with a delicate ghost pin or a carefully placed spider web. I tugged at my crop top. My friend burst out laughing. A few acquaintances shuffled away from me, as though my faux pas were contagious.
As we approached the dining hall, I had a choice. I could sprint back to my room and either change clothes or skip the dinner altogether (repeating my freshman year failure). Or I could step proudly through the doors, tennis shoes and all, and go through with the dinner.
Channeling all the American overconfidence I could muster, I went to the dinner. I downed two glasses of champagne and met the gazes of dinner guests who ogled. After a couple more glasses, I tried to develop camaraderie with a guest across the hall dressed head-to-toe as a ghost. He would not return my glances.
The main course came and went. Stares lingered on my sweatpants. Wine flowed. I skipped the group photo, slipping out the back door shortly after dessert.
I stepped out of the building, through the college gates, and returned to normalcy. No longer an out-of-place American using the wrong fork to eat my salad, I was just another girl on her way to the gym. An icy wind gusted, and the hair on my neck rose in response. Cambridge’s quaint streets were quiet, almost eerie. It was, after all, Halloween.
Since I was already wearing tennis shoes, I decided to run home.
Libby Rainey is a journalist based in New York City and a fellow at Democracy Now! She has previously written for The Denver Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Citylab, Los Angeles News Group, and The Daily Californian.