Home and away: what’s special about the Cambridge fashion scene?

Image credit: Qiuying Giulia Lai

The first thing that people usually comment on when they walk into my little room in college is the sheer number of clothes that I own. Ten pairs of sparkly tights, two red velvet playsuits, a zebra-print headband and a gold pleated skirt; these are things that I would probably never wear at home. But I take them to Cambridge knowing that of all places, the chance to wear them would be there.

It seems that at most universities, there are opportunities to put together outfits that you wouldn’t dare to wear back home. The range of events, from fresher’s week socials where people strangely decide to dress as Smurfs to jungle-themed Ents, puts stress on our wardrobes to find the most obscure of items. Fancy dress is taken very seriously, maybe because we know that this is one of the last returns to childhood that we are allowed before we head off into the world. And then there’s Arcsoc, where there is a complete sense of freedom in the way that people can use fashion. If you are not dressing with imagination and creativity at these events, you become the odd one out. 

But the particularly unusual thing about the Cambridge fashion scene, I think, is the fact that so often we have to wear formal clothes. All those smart dresses and suits will go unused, probably, throughout summer, getting nibbled away by moths and sitting in dust. It is probably the case that spending on formal wear is higher at Cambridge (and Oxford) than at other universities. We spend so much money on May Ball gowns but for most of the year we leave them on a clothes hanger. There does seem to be a massive pressure to find new clothes for each event, to find something new for every photo that is taken, meaning the amount each student spends on formal wear must be pretty high. What will be the purpose of these fancy dresses after graduation? Will we keep each glamorous outfit as a memento of our past life at university, shed a few tears onto velvet, embroidery and our matriculation photos? SPINCambridge have begun rectifying this with their 'Tinder for dresses' app; helping students make money from selling their formalwear to each other. Nonetheless, the clothes we are expected to wear for such formal events becomes part of the Cambridge bubble; the Cambridge fashion scene is part of a life that doesn’t really exist outside of the city. 

Despite that, there is a certain freedom to fashion at Cambridge. Maybe because it is a relatively small place and during term time is dominated mainly by students, often anything goes and no one would look up from their desks and their books to question it. Cheesy as it sounds, Cambridge is the perfect environment for fashion experimentation, bustling with young people working out their identity and finding new creative ways of expression.

I personally have always been interested in fashion, but in the last two years this interest (and obsession with online shopping) has dangerously increased. I blame this on Cambridge, which, though my home in London has a great fashion scene, is the place where I feel most comfortable trying on eclectic new clothes. Of course there are trends in Cambridge, but it somehow feels easier to break fashion rules when away from home.

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