Django Dynamic Formsets

Django forms are one of the most important parts of the stack: they enable us to write declarative code that will validate user input, and ensure we protect ourselves from malicious input.

Formsets are an extension of this: they deal with a set of homogeous forms, and will ensure that all of the forms are valid independently (and possibly do some inter-form validation, but that’s a topic for a later day).

The Django Admin contains an implementation of a dynamic formset: that is, it handles adding and removing forms from a formset, and maintains the management for accordingly. This post details an alternative implementation.


A Formset contains a Form (and has zero or more instances of that Form). It also contains a “Management Form”, which has metadata about the formset: the number of instances of the form that were provided initially, the number that were submitted by the user, and the maximum number of forms that should be accepted.

A Formset has a “prefix”, which is prepended to each element within the management form:

<input type="hidden" name="prefix-INITIAL_FORM_COUNT" value="...">
<input type="hidden" name="prefix-TOTAL_FORM_COUNT" value="...">
<input type="hidden" name="prefix-MIN_NUM_FORM_COUNT" value="...">
<input type="hidden" name="prefix-MAX_NUM_FORM_COUNT" value="...">

Each Form within the Formset uses the prefix, plus it’s index within the list of forms. For instance, if we have a Formset that contains three forms, each containing a single “name” field, we would have something similar to:

<input type="text" name="prefix-0-name" value="Alice">
<input type="text" name="prefix-1-name" value="Bob">
<input type="text" name="prefix-2-name" value="Carol">

Note that the form’s prefix is <formset_prefix>-<form_index>.

To make a Formset dynamic, we just need to be able to add (and possibly remove, but there’s a little more complexity there) extra forms. The managment form needs to be updated to reflect this, and we need to ensure that the new form’s fields are named appropriately.

A Formset also contains an empty_form. This is an unbound form, where the form’s “index” is set to __prefix__. Thus, the empty form for the above formset might look somewhat like:

<input type="text" name="prefix-__prefix__-name" value="">

We can leverage this to allow us to have simpler code: instead of having to duplicate elements and remove the value, we can just duplicate the empty form, and replace the string __prefix__ with whatever the index of the newly created form should be.

Here’s an implementation that has no dependencies, but does make some assumptions:

(Directly) Testing Django Formsets

Django Forms are excellent: they offer a really nice API for validating user input. You can quite easily pass a dict of data instead of a QueryDict, which is what the request handling mechanism provides. This makes it trivial to write tests that exercise a given Form’s validation directly. For instance:

def test_my_form(self):
    form = MyForm({
        'foo': 'bar',
        'baz': 'qux'
    })
    self.assertFalse(form.is_valid())
    self.assertTrue('foo' in form.errors)

Formsets are also really nice: they expose a neat way to update a group of homogenous objects. It’s possible to pass a list of dicts to the formset for the initial argument, but, alas, you may not do the same for passing data. Instead, it needs to be structured as the QueryDict would be:

def test_my_formset(self):
    formset = MyFormSet({
        'formset-INITIAL_FORMS': '0',
        'formset-TOTAL_FORMS': '2',
        'formset-0-foo': 'bar1',
        'formset-0-baz': 'qux1',
        'formset-1-foo': 'spam',
        'formset-1-baz': 'eggs'
    })
    self.assertTrue(formset.is_valid())

This is fine if you only have a couple of forms in your formset, but it’s a bit tiresome to have to put all of the prefixes, and is far noisier.

Here’s a nice little helper, that takes a FormSet class, and a list (of dicts), and instantiates the formset with the data coerced into the correct format:

def instantiate_formset(formset_class, data, instance=None, initial=None):
    prefix = formset_class().prefix
    formset_data = {}
    for i, form_data in enumerate(data):
        for name, value in form_data.items():
            if isinstance(value, list):
                for j, inner in enumerate(value):
                    formset_data['{}-{}-{}_{}'.format(prefix, i, name, j)] = inner
            else:
                formset_data['{}-{}-{}'.format(prefix, i, name)] = value
    formset_data['{}-TOTAL_FORMS'.format(prefix)] = len(data)
    formset_data['{}-INITIAL_FORMS'.format(prefix)] = 0

    if instance:
        return formset_class(formset_data, instance=instance, initial=initial)
    else:
        return formset_class(formset_data, initial=initial)

This handles a formset or a model formset. Much easier to use:

def test_my_formset(self):
    formset = instantiate_formset(MyFormSet, [
      {
        'foo': 'bar1',
        'baz': 'qux1',
      },
      {
        'foo': 'spam',
        'baz': 'eggs',
      },
    ])