Where to find budget-friendly May Ball dresses in Cambridge

We walked to the Grafton centre so you don’t have to

It is a universally acknowledged truth that someone in possession of a good May Ball ticket must be in want of an outfit. It can be difficult to hunt down a dress that doesn’t cost more than a week’s rent, but which equally won’t make you worry someone will turn up in the exact same dress you found in the ASOS sale.

But if you too have spent far longer stressing over getting a dress than you’ll spend at the actual ball, fear not!

Purely out of a love for student journalism and true selflessness – and definitely not so that we could spend a whole afternoon trying on pretty dresses – we have rated various dress shops all around Cambridge to help you find something spectacular enough for Lady Whistledown to comment on.


Possessing far-and-away the best selection of the Grafton area, this store topped the charts in range, quality, and swish factor. With a stunningly outfitted bargain rack and a variety of styles, colours, and fabrics, it contained buckets of twirl-a-licious options under £100 (with the bargain rack dresses averaging around £45). Most strikingly, the quality of the dresses was absolutely fantastic – each dress we tried on felt very well-made, with super-silky linings.

On sale for £54.99. Image credits: Inika Murkumbi

The dresses were so princess-like that we couldn’t resist a solid 10 minutes of twirling and taking photos in the dressing rooms (we felt the need to inform the dressing room attendants that we were twirling for serious journalistic rather than vanity purposes, but I do not think they believed us). As the store specializes in occasion dresses, I am sure that we were not the only over-enthusiastic twirlers of the day.

Some dresses were very strappy and required advanced spatial reasoning to get on! Image credits: Inika Murkumbi

We found that sizes tended to run a bit small (so would suggest sizing up), but Quiz firmly places at the top of our list. We especially liked that there was a large range of pastel-coloured gowns– ideal for a summery May Ball. Lots of the dresses had really gorgeous detailing on them and the overall style of the collection was timeless and elegant (without entirely breaking the bank).

New Look

We weren’t particularly overwhelmed with the selection of dresses here – it’s probably a better place for finding going-out clothes than May Ball dresses. They did have a juicy sale rail, however, and this orange jumpsuit would definitely stand out at a May Ball, and was very nicely reduced!

A pop of colour. Image credits: Inika Murkumbi


This shop definitely has lots of dresses, but most of them might be better suited to work experience or frolicking around Jesus Green for a summer picnic then they would be for May Balls. We did find this lovely navy dress for £75 though, so Next is definitely worth a stop on your trip.

Sorting out straps is always a challenge. Image credits: Claudia Cox

Charity Shops

Hitting the charity shops is by far the most cost-effective way to buy a May Ball dress, plus it’s better for the environment and the money goes to a great cause – what’s not to love?  Of course, it’s always a bit hit-and-miss in charity shops when you’re looking for something as specific as a maxi dress, but it’s definitely a cause worth persevering. Plus, there are loads of charity shops in the Grafton area for you to look round.

The perfect dress to murder your rich husband in… Image credits: Inika Murkumbi

Our number one pick out of the charity shops we tried would be the Cancer Research Trust.  Not only did it have several nice dresses, but is a particularly lovely shop in general – we both got side-tracked from our quest there making other purchases! Find attached a photo of a lovely black sequined dress, priced at only £20.


Zara is the classic go-to for anybody looking for mid-range dresses, so I wouldn’t be surprised if half of Cambridge turns up in Zara-labelled dresses which all look suspiciously similar to one another… But, with that said, I have literally zero regrets about the black maxi dress I found here for just £29.99 and will absolutely be wearing to the Sidney May Ball: what an absolute steal.

We figured maybe this dress wasn’t the one… Image credits: Sianna King

They have a number of styles up for grabs this year, from your simple maxis like these to some summery pieces or jumpsuits if that’s more your sort of vibe!

Urban Outfitters

Perhaps a little more pricey than Zara, but another classic go-to for students all around the country, Urban Outfitters is a great place to head to if you’re looking for a pretty dress under the £50 mark. In fact, they had some gorgeous classic-style dresses in a variety of colours which we tried on (of course), and my mate Ellie picked up a stunning blue one for a not-too-bad £40 with a student discount (originally £46 full-price).

50 shades of blue, as modelled by us. Image credits: Sianna King

We would highly recommend trekking to the Grafton or central Cambridge shops with a friend even if you don’t have any May Ball tickets booked. You don’t have to buy anything– trying them on makes for a fun day trip in itself!

Make sure to wear dressing room appropriate under-layers and keep your phone camera fully-charged and ready to go! 

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Featured image credits: Inika Murkumbi and Claudia Cox