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What’s all the sub-fusc about?

Zara Arif explores whether Oxford students should continue to wear sub-fusc following a year of online exams.

‘Sub-fusc’ is one of the topics which blows up freshers’ group chats every year. What is sub-fusc- the gown or the clothes underneath? Can I wear dark blue? What shoes am I allowed to wear? These are just some of the questions we all have when we start at Oxford. 

It’s definitely something that is unique to Oxford and a word that very likely means nothing to most people outside of the university’s bubble. But after a year and a half of online matriculation, exams and teaching, is it really still necessary and do we even still want to wear it? 

In order to unpick this question, perhaps we should understand when and why we wear this academic dress. 

‘Sub fuscus’ comes from Latin, and it means ‘dark brown’. The wearing of formal dress and gowns can be traced back to medieval monks in the early stages of the university. So it’s clear that, as with many traditions at Oxford, sub fusc has been around for a long, long time. Generations of students have paraded around the city in their black and white clothes and a lot more have also probably fallen into the river in said dress in a prosecco related punting accident. 

Some may say that the past year is proof that we don’t really need sub fusc. The large majority of students sat their exams in their rooms in college without putting on their gowns and formal dress. We could say that avoiding the hassle of having to get into a stuffy ‘uniform’ every morning during exam season was a relief. This year we were able to do our exams in clothes that we felt comfortable in and maybe this is what the focus should be on as exam season at Oxford is a period which is stressful enough as it is. 

Aside from its redundancy which has risen due to the pandemic, there are other issues which surround the idea of sub-fusc. In terms of accessibility to the university and breaking stereotypes it probably isn’t doing the best job at projecting a welcoming image of Oxford. Even though once we arrive here as freshers we find out that a lot of the stereotypes aren’t true, to prospective applicants the idea of everyone parading around in suits and gowns might be off-putting and project an image which not everyone would associate with an environment that is open to people of all backgrounds. 

Another issue relating to accessibility is the cost associated with sub fusc. Although £25 is not too hefty of a price to pay when you first arrive in freshers’ week, you also need to buy formal clothes like a suit and smart shoes to go with it. Not to mention, that when the inevitable trashing happens at the end of the year, most of these clothes will be ruined and unable to be worn again so another set has to be purchased. Perhaps this is something the university should think about when enforcing a certain clothing on all students. 

Despite these issues, sub fusc is one of those things, which despite being odd, is what makes Oxford what it is. Even though first years did prelims in our rooms this year, a large majority of us changed into our sub-fusc after our last exam and took part in trashing. This is clear proof that sub-fusc is part of a tradition that as students we love and look forward to. As long as it is done responsibly and considerately to the environment and local residents, getting trashed in your sub-fusc is a much-needed release and celebration with friends at the end of exams. For many people, it is the highlight of the Trinity term. This celebration just wouldn’t be the same without if we weren’t trashing the famous black and white outfits which in normal years we would have worn for all formal and academic occasions. Exam season this year goes to show that no matter the circumstances, sub-fusc is an important part of our academic years in Oxford. We start and finish the year wearing the same outfit and maybe this is why we should continue to wear it. It is something that shows how hard everyone has worked academically and also on themselves throughout a high-pressure and stressful academic year. 

So, although sub-fusc has been something that has been less present in the lives of Oxford students this past year, there is no doubt that it is still a cherished part of life here. There is something about seeing all your friends in their gowns at matriculation or a formal that is indescribable. Sub-fusc brings everyone together and unites us as students here. Oxford just wouldn’t be the same without it.

Photo Credit: Mike Knell / CC BY-SA 2.0

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