The value of academic gowns

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red gown illustration
Illustration: Emily Lomax

Almost exactly a year ago, I tried on an iconic St Andrews red gown for the first time. It was an important moment for me, given that I had spent basically every day of the past three weeks (if not longer) scrolling through every PR picture St Andrews has ever released of students who had walked the St Andrean path ahead of me. All were clad in red gowns, leaving me speculating wildly about what it would be like to wear one.

Despite my frequent daydreams, there were a few key differences between the red gown in my head and the one I own in reality. The main one is that its importance had been greatly exaggerated before I came to these stony shores (probably aided by my imagination). There is a wealth of history which pre-dates the gown, so before we delve into discussion of the gown as it exists in our current times, let’s look back.

For those who may be unaware of the history, here’s a recap. In the 1500s, student gowns were a tradition among all the ancient Scottish universities, which hoped to keep frisky students away from illicit activities. For some reason, university officials thought that the wearing of a gown would be a good prevention method. As to why students didn’t just take the gowns off whenever they were in the mood to get into a bit of trouble, I couldn’t find anything concrete. We can speculate that students were more protective of their gowns or afraid of having them stolen. After all, gowns were decidedly more expensive back in the day, as students had to buy the material themselves and find a tailor to make their new piece of clothing.

Gowns were so ingrained in student life that in his accounts of travels to Scotland during the 16th century, renowned English writer Daniel Defoe wrote, “The colleges are handsome buildings, and well supply’d with men of learning in all sciences, and who govern the youth they instruct with reputation; the students wear gowns here of a scarlet-like colour, but not in grain, and are very numerous.” Centuries later, Samuel Johnson, a fellow English writer, described Scotland as being populated by students in red gowns.

By the 1900s, however, students only had to wear their gowns to class and at formal events rather than all the time, and the tradition has continued to taper off from there.

Given the history of gowns, my expectations were high regarding their importance as a university tradition. The weight given to the gowns in historical accounts of Scottish universities had led me to believe I would be wearing my gown daily. However, upon my arrival I realized that the days of students in gowns being seen on every street corner were long gone.

Looking back, I now realise that nothing in the University brochures or on the University’s website had stated that gowns were compulsory.

Photo: Danielle Golds
Photo: Danielle Golds

However, as photos of students in gowns can be found in almost all publicity material, I was expecting that they would play some part in day-to-day student life.

The gown’s history is rich and interesting, as we discussed, and as such, I somehow expected it to be a more common sight around town. It makes sense that the gown isn’t actually seen around town on a regular basis, though. It’s not compulsory at any events, and even at events that strongly encourage gowns, wearers are in the minority. Gowns are worn quite often at debates, and student ambassadors who guide tours on visiting days sometimes wear them (although red hoodies are also an option that more and more seem to be choosing). Gowns are encouraged at formal events, such as High Table dinners and chapel services, and members of St Salvator’s Chapel Choir are required to wear them.

Pier walk

The gown can even be worn during exams, although I’ve never actually seen anyone do this and it would probably be mildly socially unacceptable. But if ostentatious, melodramatic fashion is your thing, the more power to you. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest a link between wearing a gown and acing your modules.

If you take part in debates, chapel services and the like on a regular basis, you could end up wearing your gown pretty frequently, but most students just don’t. Even pier walks, one of the rare occasions when you see a small army of students in red gowns, are rare because no one’s really in the mood to risk the wrath of Poseidon by walking across a small ledge on a windy November day.

While the gown is certainly a unique tradition, and one that might be laughed at by other lesser institutions, it is rarely viewed as silly from within the University. In fact, gowns are generally viewed as a favourite student tradition even if they aren’t always worn. This isn’t to say people don’t make jokes in reference to Hogwarts or comments about the gown’s rather unkempt appearance, but these are usually light-hearted. Very few St Andrews students actually have anything bad to say about the gown (except, perhaps, that it’s a little too pricey).

The love that we students generally have for our gowns might be why it came as a bit of a surprise that the rest of the world doesn’t view our rosy tradition the same way as us. One of the best examples of this came after several students appeared on

University Challenge in 2014. These intrepid followers of tradition were mocked brutally for wearing their gowns on the show. Our tradition was less than appreciated, and in fact was widely disdained both for the gowns’ general appearance and because many viewers interpreted them as elitist or snobby.

Addressing the harsh criticisms, Jaime Perriam, captain of the St Andrews University Challenge team, was quoted as saying: “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. 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…”

Clearly Perriam is as an advocate of the gown, and she dispels the idea that it represents anything other than a kind of academic unity. It’s not difficult to see why she holds this view, since St Andrews is a town full of tradition and academic pride in almost equal measure. The history that inspires the gown tradition is impressive, to say the least. Furthermore, the few times a year the red gown is actually donned, it’s usually pretty good fun. If nothing else, the academic striptease is always entertaining. It’s a visible sign that your university career is progressing, no matter how stagnant it may feel at the moment.

(For those unsure of the striptease and too awkward to ask anyone just yet: in first year, gowns are normally worn over both shoulders before being pushed over the shoulders for second year. They are worn off the left shoulder for arts students or right shoulder for science students in third year, and in fourth year, they are worn around the elbows to represent the metaphorical shrugging off of students’ university lives. It’s surprisingly poignant, at least for a striptease.)

You’ll be able to use your gown in years to come as you bore unwilling grandchildren with tales of your time at university, or even if you need an extra quilt on a cold night.

There’s no question that the role the gown plays in everyday student life has changed. It has gone from being a key identifier around town nearly all the time to being necessary only for classes and, today, being almost completely unneeded. There are certainly some students who have chosen to opt out of the red gown tradition entirely by choosing never to get one, and it hasn’t done them any harm. Although the gown adds a sense of tradition to pier walk pictures, that doesn’t mean a gown is something you can’t live without. It’s just not necessary to student life anymore, and in these modern times, there are other aspects of the gown to consider besides purely necessity. For example students should consider gowns’ genuine usefulness (which is nearly non-existent) and the picture they paint to non-St Andreans (probably not very slimming and generally quite unflattering).

Our wonderful red academic gown isn’t actually a necessity for most students, but for all it was perhaps overly built-up as in my mind before I got here, it’s good fun. It’s also an excellent tradition for those of us who are prone to enjoying a bit of sentimentality (which I definitely am, but there’s no shame in it) and might want a gown as a sort of memory instigator post-graduation. You’ll be able to use your gown in years to come as you bore unwilling grandchildren with tales of your time at university, or even if you need an extra quilt on a cold night.

One final note: the gown is incredibly useful in the quest to take a new Facebook profile picture of yourself on the pier, which is something we’ve all done at least once, and it’s an irreplaceable part of St Andrews culture.

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