I never went in for the arcane bollocks at Oxford. On three occasions in my four years there – matriculation, prelims and finals – I wore a gown; my college had a canteen rather than Latin-prayer meals, and I had my degree sent in the post rather than formally conferred. The rituals struck me as tiresome, a waste of time and thought, and the Daily Mail seems to agree – the one thing it dislikes more than Oxford’s strange quirks, in fact, is any will to reform them.
In my third year, when exam dress was made gender-nonspecific, the Mail told its readers wistfully:
For centuries, the sight of Oxford students in their distinctive academic gowns has been as familiar in the city as its dreaming spires. But the ancient university has been forced to rewrite its traditional dress code – to avoid upsetting transgender students. From next month, men will be allowed to wear skirts or stockings to exams while women can choose suits or white bow ties.
Under the old regulations, male students were required to wear a dark suit with dark socks, black shoes, a white bow tie, and a plain white shirt and collar beneath their black gowns when attending formal occasions such as examinations. Female students have to wear a dark skirt or trousers, a white blouse, a black ribbon tied in a bow at the neck, black stockings and shoes.
The dress code is strictly enforced by the university’s authorities, which have the power to punish students deemed in breach of the rules. Punishments range from fines to rustication – the suspension of a student for a period of time – or expulsion, known as ‘sending down’. However, the university’s council, headed by Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton, has dropped any distinction between the sexes by deleting all references to men and women.
For my finals, which followed soon after, I was one of the first to wear an ordinary necktie instead of the white bow – an adjustment that made the whole silly ensemble conventional if not quite normal. (Knowing that were men to wear skirts, Oxford’s very pillars would turn to salt, I stuck to slacks.)
In two weeks’ time students will vote on whether to ditch subfusc outright. Should they scrap it, as I’d have liked, the Mail will no doubt moan cultural Marxist youths have ruined one more tradition they ought to respect, but today’s polling day, and so for now it thinks Oxford students who follow the exam dress code are lackeys of the bourgeoisie – not least Ed Miliband, confusingly the son of a real Marxist. [Read more…]