Gowning around: University Challenge team get the thumbs down

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A social media backlash occurred following the appearance of a team from St Andrews on the popular BBC2 quiz show University Challenge. The team lost by a respectable scoreline of 150-100, yet most of the post-show debate centred not on their performance, but on the decision by each team member to wear the iconic red gown in the appropriate fashion.

As students progress through the years, the tradition is to wear the gown in a looser manner, eventually being draped off the arms. Yet viewers unfamiliar with the tradition, took to Twitter to condemn the team’s appearance – many seeing the gowns as a sign of snobbery.

Dan Pearce commented: “Hope St Andrews lose just for those gowns” whilst Tom [PositiveLad] asked: “Why have St Andrews come dressed as a bad toga party?”. Martin Smith wittily added: “I guess being able to dress yourself isn’t an entry requirement for St Andrews” whilst Richard Lafette was rather more cruel: “How irritating were St Andrews, with their ridiculous Little Red Riding Hood capes? Was hoping the wolf would arrive”. Other responses contained more colourful language, including one based on a popular bus-based catchphrase from The Inbetweeners, but applied to the St Andrews gown.

Responding to the online furore, Jamie Perriam, who captained the team, said: “In my opinion the academic gown, far from perpetuating any kind of class mythology, is a great leveller: for the only demand it makes of the wearer is that they belong to the great community of truth that is a university. The wearing of the St Andrews gown in particular is hardly an expression of sentimentality for a feudal past; rather, it is an action explicitly couched in the Victorian spirit of revival – of historicity and hope combined – that saved the University in the nineteenth century and sustains it today.

“Our motivation for wearing gowns did not stem from a misguided sense of entitlement, but from a feeling of immense pride in St Andrews’ traditions, of which the gown is a potent symbol: medieval in character, maintained in modification, and modern in practice – this last attested by the fairly recent innovation of the so-called academic strip-tease. I’ve hung up my old red gown for good; but I will defend its integrity all my days.”

[pullquote]”In my opinion the academic gown, far from perpetuating any kind of class mythology, is a great leveller”[/pullquote]

Lewis Fairfax, a member of the St Andrews team, told The Saint: “I understand where the backlash is coming from but it is more a result of ignorance of a university tradition that I think is harmless and enriching. All students at St Andrews wear gowns equally as part of our status as such an ancient University – so if anything I would say it’s egalitarian. I would remind people criticising the decision to wear the symbol of our University (rather than carrying a scarf or a soft toy) is that part of the reason we wore the gowns is because the 1983 winning team did. Three of us on the team were state-school educated, and three from Scotland, so we definitely won’t be ‘whipping any peasants’ any time soon.”

This criticism came only a day after St Andrews placed 124th out of 127th for its number of working class students in The Times Good University Guide 2014.

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