DEBATE: To gown or not to gown? NO

Chase Smith 26 May 2015

Many people cite the Cambridge gown as one of our greatest traditions: after all, it dates back to the earliest era of this university, when undergraduates were distinguished from townsfolk by their clothing. Wearing them at formal occasions such as matriculation and graduation undeniably lends these special events a certain gravitas, and in the case of graduation this practice is by no means the most bizarre of the day’s associated traditions.

And yet, wearing gowns on less official occasions – something most commonly demanded by Formal Hall, but also by some performance events – is unnecessary and potentially damaging. The fact that a practice has continued for hundreds of years does not necessarily make it a good thing. We must ask ourselves: do we want a defining feature of our identity as Cambridge students to be the clothes we wear to dinner, or would we be content to focus on the world class standard of teaching and the resources,  societies and opportunities on offer? Cambridge is by no means perfect, but there are a lot of amazing things which render it different from other universities: supervisions with experts, an overwhelmingly vibrant theatre scene, and a plethora of sports teams and other societies to get involved with to name but a few clichés.  

The tradition of wearing gowns to dinner makes Cambridge seem even more like a strange and different world. How can we say to potential applicants that this is a university full of ‘normal’ people, and assure them that they would fit in, if the image they get is of students in capes? Explaining the concept to non-Cambridge students has never been anything short of painful, in my experience. It's fun to feel like Harry Potter, but as everyone over the age of 11 is painfully aware, Hogwarts isn’t real: it exists in a different, unattainable universe. That is not something we want for the University of Cambridge.

The reason that gowns used to be compulsory was to mark out Cambridge students as different to the ‘ordinary’ people living in the town. Nowadays the gown continues to do just that. Its frequent use is another unnecessary label, defining us as different. It cannot be denied that Cambridge is different to other universities, and yet, unlike the differentiating factors of teaching style, admissions requirements, and college communities, the gown serves no purpose whatsoever.