Landslide vote for Oxford to keep gowns

Stevie Hertz 26 May 2015

Oxford University students have voted overwhelmingly to keep traditional academic dress, including gowns and mortarboards. Over three quarters of students voted to keep ‘subfusc’, the formal clothes worn for academic ceremonies, while 78% supported keeping gowns and mortarboards as well.

The referendum gained the highest turnout on record for any English student union cross-campus vote, with almost 41% of students voting.

Oxford University Student Union held the referendum after students argued that subfusc was archaic and elitist. Unlike in Cambridge, Oxford students must wear mortarboards, gowns and subfusc, typically a dark suit and bow tie or ribbon, for both formal ceremonies and exams, which campaigners argued was off-putting to many students.

However, Harrison Edmonds, who led the campaign to keep subfusc, not only argued that it was tradition but also that it is equalizing. He said “subfusc isn’t elitist but is egalitarian. No matter your background, race, class or gender, when you go into exams wearing the gown, you are equal.”

Michael Withers, a first-year student at Merton College, Oxford, lamented the result of the referendum, saying: “Continuing to force students to wear an archaic dress code so associated with elitism and privilege cannot be reconciled with the university's supposed commitment to social mobility and increased access."

However, another first-year student, Harry Gosling, also at Merton, did not agree, telling The Cambridge Student: “Subfusc is visually levelling and I for one place a high value on the stability and uniformity of it, as well as the sense of pride that comes from partaking in a tradition that constitutes a significant part of what it means to be an Oxford Student.”

Sam Hobson, a first-year historian at the University of Cambridge, also supported keeping gowns: “Cambridge and gowns are an ancient tradition that help is to feel connected to centuries of fellow students. It would be an enormous shame to let them go”

Should Cambridge abandon the gown? Our writers argue yes and no.