4 Oxford Clothing Traditions and Their History

You might have noticed that the students of Oxford don’t quite dress like the students of… well, just about anywhere else.

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With their Harry Potter-esque gowns for exams, which flap wonderfully if the student in question is on a bicycle, the students of Oxford can’t even be matched for strange clothing choices by their peers in Cambridge; they do wear gowns as well, but not nearly as often as the students at Oxford. This and other clothing traditions and fashions of Oxford have a fascinating origin and history – here’s our look at four of the most notable.

1. Sub fusc

The proper name for the full outfit that includes those swooshy gowns is sub fusc, which is sometimes written subfusc or sub-fusc depending on the mood of the editor. However, it’s written as sub fusc on the University of Oxford’s official website and they should know, so we’ll stick with that. Sub fusc consists of a gown – for most undergraduates, this will be a short commoner’s gown, which has streamers over the arms instead of full sleeves, and is plain black – a white shirt or blouse, black trousers or skirt, and a white bow tie, black bow tie, black full-length tie, or black ribbon. In a small concession to modernity, in 2012 the university changed the rules on sub fusc so that it was no longer restricted by gender.

image shows two students in sub fusc riding bicycles
A student in sub fusc on a bicycle – possibly the most ‘Oxfordy’ of sites.

Sub fusc comes from the Latin sub fuscus meaning ‘dark brown’. The first reference to it on the university’s statute books comes from 1636, but the wearing of academic dress in Oxford probably dates back to the very early days of the university, where it emerged from monastic traditions. The Church had a long history of dictating different types of clothing for different ranks of the clergy.
As the centuries wore on, the regulations around what was and wasn’t permissible for students to wear became stricter. This was in line with general cultural norms: the later Middle Ages saw the passing of sumptuary laws, which dictated (among other things) the type of clothing and fabrics that people of different professions and social classes were permitted to wear. Who was or wasn’t permitted to wear velvet is a theme in sumptuary laws across Europe, and that continues as a tradition in academic dress. Only postgraduates at a certain level are usually allowed to wear velvet in their academic dress, though this varies from university to university. For instance, at Trinity College, Dublin, those who have received a scholarship are permitted to wear a velvet cap instead of an ordinary mortarboard.

image shows students in sub fusc
Sub fusc is worn at all academic ceremonies, matriculations and graduations, as well as all examinations. There’s nothing like struggling to tie a bow tie to help calm those pre-exam jitters.

Sub fusc hasn’t been without its controversies. Students have long argued that it is elitist; that many feel uncomfortable or put off by this strange clothing requirement; that on a practical level, it’s annoying to have to find a gown and bow tie or ribbon in order to attend an exam. In May 2015, this was taken to a vote, in which students voted overwhelmingly in favour of keeping sub fusc – a full 75.6% of students voted in favour. It’s worth noting that the significance of sub fusc is such that the vote was widely reported in British newspapers. The student who led the campaign in favour of sub fusc spoke enthusiastically in its defence, saying, “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. The message I get from people from under-privileged or poor backgrounds is that having the ability to wear their gown makes them feel the equal of Etonians or Harrovians, and that is something they don’t want taken away from them.” The vote – which had an unusually high turnout of around 40% of students – seems to have offered clear evidence that his fellow students enthusiastically agreed with him.

2. Red trousers

It was a headline piece when David Cameron said he didn’t own a single pair of red trousers. A letter to the Spectator used the adjective “red-trousered” as a clear term of abuse. An article in the Independent criticised Oxford as a place of “red trousers and rich kids”. And on it goes – there’s advice on how to wear red trousers without being ridiculed, articles on the value of an Oxbridge education titled “beyond the red trousers” and questions of whether a grown man should wear red trousers, or if they are solely the preserve of “gauche Oxford undergraduates”. A poll in 2013 revealed that 46% of the population don’t like red trousers, 24% don’t approve of red trousers at all, and they have an association with words like “clown”, “idiot” and “prat.”

image shows a man in red trousers
The fixation with red trousers is difficult to explain – why do red trousers have such significance that people will try to subtly take picture of someone wearing them on public transport?!

If you’re unfamiliar with the red trouser meme, you might be a little baffled by all of this. You might be wondering what the combination of an innocent, if perhaps somewhat loud colour and legwear does to bring out such a strong response. The answer is locked up in the complicated world of the British class system. As the BBC website put it, “in the popular imagination, red trouser-wearing sits at a Venn diagram intersection between hipsters and the upper classes.” And it is certainly true that they’re a popular choice for Oxford students (though perhaps less popular than they once were, thanks to all the negative publicity).
Like most fashion trends, the exact origin of the fondness of particular Oxford students for red trousers is hard to pin down. One suggestion is that they come from a rural tradition of the kind of hard-wearing clothing needed to work on a large estate. Red trousers are traditionally made of corduroy, corduroy is hard-wearing and so it makes sense that you would wear corduroy trousers if you had a large estate on which to work. But if you have a large estate, you might well want others to know about it without having to show off by telling them directly – so even when you’re a hundred-mile journey from your estate, you wear your country trousers in order to show where you’ve come from. It’s a little bit like how jeans went from being a hard-wearing fabric worn by cowboys to being a hard-wearing fabric worn by people who wanted others to think they were as cool as cowboys. It’s a satisfying explanation with one significant hole: why red? It’s also worth noting that the red part has stuck around much more successfully that the corduroy – red trousers can be a whole variety of fabrics now.
Alternatively, it may be that red trousers simply fill a particular niche in student life: you can sit in a park in them, go on a punt in them, study in the library in them and then go out for a meal in a reasonably nice restaurant without anyone requiring you to get changed – a role that jeans can’t serve. Black trousers would be boring and purple too garish – so you land on red. But that’s a less fun explanation, isn’t it?

3. Tweed

Tweed comes to Oxford through two traditions: one, the tradition of tweed as a fabric for country clothing in Britain, particularly for the upper classes involving in activities like hunting and shooting; and two, the tradition of tweed as a fabric for intellectuals and academics. The first half of this makes perfect sense: tweed is a hard-wearing fabric that can be uncomfortably itchy but is certainly very warm, and survives long enough that it can be passed down as an heirloom. The second version makes less sense – tweed is warm in draughty libraries but that doesn’t really offer a full explanation. All the same, the association is fixed in the public imagination – almost any professorial character in film or TV wears tweed, from Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to Indiana Jones, to Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, to various incarnations of the Doctor in Doctor Who.

image shows a tweed jacket
Tweed is synonymous with the English countryside

Probably the best-known type of tweed is Harris Tweed, which is hand-woven in Scotland using local wool and vegetable dyes. Its wearers often describe its history and provenance as one of the key appeals of tweed; for instance, the writer Fennel Hudson said that, “I like the thought that, for example, a favourite tweed jacket was once a sheep, living upon a mountain in Scotland.”
With its twin associations with academia and upper-class life, it makes natural sense that tweed should also be associated with Oxford. Even though the percentage of students who are from upper-class backgrounds is now scarcely greater than at any other university, it’s clear from the ‘red trousers’ trend that upper-class fashion has a greater hold here than elsewhere. Despite this, it’s an idea of Oxford honoured more in writing and popular imagination than it is in reality. Stephen Fry wrote of Cambridge that he thought he would stay there, “quietly grow tweed in a corner somewhere and become a Don or something” – but tweed-clad dons in Oxford or Cambridge are a rarity in reality.

4. Bluestockings

The bluestocking tradition is one that no longer exists in Oxford, but it’s such an excellent example of how clothing traditions come to be mixed up with cultural trends that it seemed worth including all the same.

imahe shows women wearing blue stockings
Today, ‘bluestocking’ is a word used mainly in celebration of women and education. Bluestocking Week is an event held worldover to raise awareness of women’s issues regarding education and beyond.

Bluestockings were intellectual women in the latter half of the 18th century and later. At first, the term was used to refer to members of the Blue Stockings Society, a group of intellectual women and some men who gathered together to form a literary discussion circle, in defiance of the societal norms of the time that increasingly aimed to restrict women to a non-intellectual, domestic sphere. It was at this time, during the Industrial Revolution, that the ideology of ‘separate spheres’ was coming into its own – the idea that men’s domain was in business, outside of the home and unconcerned with activities such as managing servants or raising children, while women’s domain was entirely within the home and women should not take an interest in anything within the sphere belonging to men – including intellectual study. The Blue Stockings Society stood in direct opposition to this attitude.
However, over time the term’s association with men disappeared entirely and it became used as a term of abuse for any educated woman, with connotations of frumpishness and women turning to education because men were not interested in them. The writer William Hazlitt wrote about his “utter aversion to Bluestockingism … I do not care a fig for any woman that knows even what an author means.” Similar protests were made a century later when Oxford opened its first colleges for female students, beginning with Lady Margaret Hall. What’s more, the hatred of bluestockings had an effect: while London University granted degrees to women from 1878 onwards, Oxford took until 1920 to catch up (and Cambridge was the last university in the UK to award degrees to women, in 1947).

Lady Margaret Hall was the first all-female Oxford College. Today, it welcomes both male and female students, and is an ORA summer campus!
Lady Margaret Hall was the first all-female Oxford College. Today, it welcomes both male and female students, and is an ORA summer campus!

But where does the term bluestocking actually come from? It’s been suggested that it derives from the fact that women’s daywear in the 18th century included woollen worsted stockings, often dyed blue, while in the evenings fashionable women would wear black silk stockings instead. The term could connote informality and relaxation – think of a modern literary circle calling itself “the comfy hoodie group” and you’ll get the same idea. It’s similarly easy to see how such a term was turned to abuse; what’s informal can also easily be what’s unattractive. In the modern day, the term bluestocking has been reclaimed and is often used in the titles of feminist blogs and magazines, referencing the hard work of women in the past who fought for education. It’s come to be used in a neutral way to reference educated women in general, too, such as in a 1993 headline in the Independent on Somerville College admitting men for the first time: “Blue stockings greet blue socks”.
Clothing and fashion in Oxford, as anywhere, can be a marker of a variety of different things – a nod to the past, a show of belonging or simply a comfy way to dress on a summer’s day on a punt. What clothing do you associate with Oxford? Let us know in the comments!
Image Credits: sub fusc bicycle, sub fusc black friars, red trousers, tweed, blue stocking, oxford sky.