When you know it’s all gown wrong

Buy the Company of Fellows for 70p for Kindle in the UK

(Pictures taken at this time last year, by me, during Lilith Burning, a literary event I ran in Oxford with Katelan Foisy from New York’s Knickerbocker Circus Press.)

First of all I just want to say an enormous thank you to everyone who’s bought the book and put it in the extraordinary position of being in the overall top 100 bestsellers for Kindle, selling over 100 copies a day. Thank you!

OK. One of the things you’ll hear when people talk about Oxford is the phrase “town and gown”. It refers to the division between the regular citizens of Oxford and the people associated with the University (traditionally the students, but anyone who’s read The Company of Fellows will know the *real* troublemakers are the academics), said to spill over into regular violence (there *is* a town v gown boxing match). I can’t say I was ever party to that as a student, but I do want to talk about the word gown (for the university’s own words on gowns go here. Search google images for oxford academic dress for pics).

These students are sporting commoners' gowns

Oxford students wear gowns to take exams. True, that can be annoying when random punters and tourists like, er, Katelan and me, come up and start asking for pictures (though the more exhibitionist students love it and some – despite rules outlawing such entrepreneurialism – even seek to exploit it for financial gain), but could it really be the source of deep insecurity and bile? Well, yes. Because as with everything in Oxford, there are codified hierarchies at work in the wearing of gowns.

The students in these photos are all wearing commoners’ gowns. These are what you wear from day 1 as a student. They are cut short and have short sleeves. If you do well in your first year exams, you may be awarded a scholarship. This can also happen if you do well in your start of term college exams (known as “collections”, in which you sit on hard benches in the dining hall and have the opportunity to win book tokens if you do well. If you do badly, however, you have to do “penal collections” and possibly get “sent down” or “rusticated” [which is another post!]). If this happens you will be called a Scholar. If you do really-quite-well-but-not-that-well you may be awarded an Exhibition and called an Exhibitioner (not -ist).

note the pink carnation

Scholars and Exhibitioners get to wear different gowns. And not just to exams, but to dinner. Longer gowns, with long, billowing sleeves. I was a reprobate for much of my early college years (again, another post :)) and most certainly didn’t have a long gown. Many of my friends did. They strode down the streets with their heads held high (blown along, admittedly, by the sail flowing behind them) whilst those of us still in commoners’ gowns walked a pace behind tugging our forelocks.

Carnations, as sported in these photos, are a way for students to let people know how far through their exams they are. On the first day of exams they wear white. Thereafter they wear pink, until the final day, when they put on red and, come 5 o’clock, announce themselves as fair sport for the equally traditional flour and egging (though of course the university has, and regularly enforces, rules on this, such as within how many metres of the Examination Schools one may not throw flour and eggs). Needless to say this three-coloured tradition is seen by many as a challenge. Flowers left in water soak up that water to keep in good fettle. Add ink to that water and you can colour your flower. Split the stem and put each bit in different ink and you can end up a walking harlequin.

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~ by danholloway on May 29, 2011.

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