TOMAS VIEIRA-SHORT FOR VARSITY

Is there anything more self-indulgent than posting a matriculation photo decked out in your new gown? If this test is anything to go by, half of the student population would invariably pass, myself included. There is a certain fondness I look back with when I revisit those pictures; the trip to Ede and Ravenscroft to pick up a gown (like a B-rated version of Say Yes to the Dress), warm glows of adulation along with my feigned replies of humility. Nothing screams Cambridge quite like a suit, tie and gown.

“the college gown is emblematic of the tradition, history and heritage steeped in the university”

Yet, I write this halfway across the world with my gown no longer in reach. Instead, it sits in my wardrobe back in Cambridge along with a beloved houndstooth coat and college puffer jacket — fashion relics from Michaelmas. With no occasion to don my gown or puffer, I wonder whether these articles of clothing were worth the investment? Or, are they simply at risk of losing relevance in an increasingly woke and COVID-ridden world?

At best, the college gown is emblematic of the tradition, history and heritage steeped in the university. A quick Wikipedia search lands you on a page with details on the academic dress code, complete with tables and flowcharts. The university clearly does not take wearing gowns lightly. However, it may be viewed as a symbol of exclusivity. A metonymic representation of the town-gown divide. Some view the gown as a luxury while others see it as another symbol pinning Cambridge closer to Hogwarts than reality. Once the thrill of feeling like Harry Potter subsides, the incongruity between life within college walls and the outside world becomes more pronounced. These are no longer precedented times, so with the ramifications of COVID hitting the city, issues like homelessness and the closure of local businesses beg us to reconsider whether the continuation of such arbitrary traditions is warranted.

Prince Charles in his blue Trinity gownTWITTER / PRINCEHRHGEORGE

I will be the first to concede that the panacea to the social issues that plague the university does not lie in the discontinuation of wearing gowns. The tradition is merely a symptom of a wider issue. But doesn’t fashion, after all, have a rightful place in politics? Those who claim that fashion cannot be political fail to see that the mere wearing of gowns is inherently a political act. It represents the prestige that has been reserved for students of the university for centuries, which has historically been white men from the upper echelons. The cultural capital bestowed upon generations of these alumni and their families, many of whom continue to attend the university, make the gown seem like a birth right or second-nature. First-generation university students, on the contrary, are unlikely able to say the same.

“the Cambridge puffer offers a collective identity within the university and the collegiate system”

With all that said, I admittedly still subscribe to the traditions entrenched in Cambridge, including the wearing of gowns. It is possible to enjoy putting it on and still remain aware of what it represents; the two are not mutually exclusive. The gown should not act like an invisibility cloak shielding us away from issues faced by the greater community, and instead it must accentuate the privilege of our position.

While doubts are validly raised over the relevance of the college gown, the quintessential black puffer jacket is of a completely different nature. I always find guessing someone’s college a cheap form of entertainment when walking in town, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the crest on their coat. Unlike the North Face jacket that every other British male citizen has, the Cambridge puffer offers a collective identity within the university and the collegiate system; a classy nod to our alma mater without the pomp and excess of a gown.

Masks are the new stashINSTAGRAM / RYDERANDAMIES

Granted, I would never wear the jacket outside of term. For starters, home for me is the tropics so an oversized jacket is not exactly my everyday apparel. But the fine line between vanity and modesty is difficult to tread when wearing any form of university merchandise. The guiding philosophy to the art of wearing stash, suggests ex-alumnus Tommy Shane, is tasteful discretion.


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I don’t mean to scorn upon ardent fans of stash but anyone who owns the trifecta of mugs, keychains and hats embellished with the university crest needs to take a long hard look in the mirror. Is another purchase from Ryders and Amies really necessary? Recent years have also seen new, inventive ways to profit off Cambridge: condoms, temporary tattoos and rings have all been added to the never-ending list of merchandise. The case for stash, however, has been bolstered by the drudgery of remote learning as we all cling on to tangible memories and reminders of Cambridge.

You can count me out on this. While the only stash I have with me is my college sweater, this more than suffices. I don’t need my longing for a normal Lent to be defined by memorabilia (gown, puffer and tote bag) that I own. And I promise you don’t need to either.