Harvard Business School's Priscilla Ball Goes PC

The Priscilla Ball has traditionally featured cross-dressing male MBAs wearing exotic costumes Photograph by Henry Horenstein/Getty Images

Updates fifth paragraph with details of events leading up to changes to the ball.

For those of you who have never attended Harvard Business School, the Priscilla Ball may be a little hard to imagine. Once a year the future captains of industry go a little crazy. The boys dress like girls—think pink feather boas and fishnet stockings, French maid outfits and Catholic schoolgirl uniforms—and the ladies wear all manner of unspeakable things.

Until now. Following a New York Times story two weeks ago on gender inequality at HBS, organizers of the ball—Michaela Alhadeff, Tristan Webster, and Michael D’Onofrio—say they’re ridding the event of some of its more “problematic elements.”

“The party has earned a reputation as an off-the-wall celebration that embraces individual expression and Australia’s live-out-loud culture,” they wrote in an essay published in the Harbus, the business school’s student newspaper. “At the same time, however, the event has attracted legitimate criticism—for encouraging excess, reinforcing gender stereotypes, and mandating cross-dressing.”

The ball, scheduled for Oct. 18 in Boston, is based on a 1994 film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, about two drag queens and a transgender woman traveling through the Australian outback. It’s hosted by the HBS Australia & New Zealand Club.

The leadership of the club earlier this year sought input from the LGBT Student Association and the Women’s Student Association on how to improve the ball and then came up with a number of changes. According to the Harbus essay, “These include managing costume themes to ensure that they are not degrading, removing cross-dressing from the event’s branding, educating students about the event’s history and contextualizing the event within the range of diversity activities taking place on campus this month.”

Asked for specifics, Alhadeff would say only that the organizers are working with section leaders to choose themes that are “respectful and in the spirit of the event.” Cross-dressing will be permitted, but only “in a spirit of support and respect, and not to marginalize any individuals or groups.” Alhadeff said reaction from the student body has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

The ball, one of the biggest social events at Harvard Business School, has been an HBS tradition for more than a decade, and it has gotten its share of publicity.  In a 2008 book about his HBS experience, Ahead of the Curve, Philip Delves Broughton described one man in a white boa and black wig, and another in “a skimpy Heidi outfit and women’s underwear.” Cameras are strictly verboten, but a few photos have managed to survive.

About a year ago, the ball prompted a bout of hand-wringing on the part of the Harbus, which asked what kind of message the ball sent to others. It suggested, half tongue-in-cheek, how the message would change “if we replace the cheerleaders and chamber maids with decently dressed Florence Nightingale, Hillary Clinton, Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Mary Poppins, Sacagawea, and perhaps The Bride from Kill Bill?”

If only there were somewhere in Cambridge where you could get a Florence Nightingale costume in 42 large.

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