Miscellaneous What to Wear


How does a student dress these days to take an exam? Our informal survey of them-that-know tells us that at most citadels of higher education anything goes--shorts, tee-shirts, pajamas, flip-flops... whatever.

Not if you are sitting for an exam at Oxford University, that bastion of the British academic tradition. We found that out when a friend who is enrolled there for a post-graduate degree came to us recently for sartorial advice.

He had just found out that to be eligible to sit for exams, each student must arrive on the appointed day dressed in subfusc underneath an academic gown.

The to-be-examined must assemble early in the morning to be taken to the exam location. A proctor stands at the door to vet the garb of each would-be test-taker. Just like a Roman emperor in the Colosseum( or a doorman at the hottest club in town): thumbs up, you're ok; thumbs down, you miss the exam... no excuses.

A terrifying prospect for the uninitiated, even the best and brightest. And for those who've convinced themselves that they do their best thinking in pjs and flip-flops, what an antiquated and annoying imposition.

But for us, an opportunity to have some fun researching the arcana of academic dress. We learned that there are rules upon rules about what is appropriate, often hearkening back to the Middle Ages, depending on the magnitude of the event and the rank and importance of those who will attend.

So what is subfusc? Basically, for men, it means a very dark grey or black suit, black shoes and socks, and a white shirt with a white collar worn with a white bowtie.

How many men do you know who have those particular items in their closet right now? Our friend didn't.

In a further burst of Anglophile enthusiasm we even discovered that undergraduates often choose to wear a carnation buttonhole as well; its color indicates which exam that student is up against.

Not what you'd expect in this era of sartorial anything-goes. But in 2006, when the university offered to make the wearing of subfusc and gown for examinations purely voluntary, 81% of an unusually large turnout of students voted against the change. Instead the students wanted to keep that Oxford tradition alive.

Rule, Brittania.

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