Debate: Sub-fusc: sexy or sad?


Proposition: Anonymous

Say what you like about Oxford, one thing it does well is look good. That’s right tabloids – we might be only fraudulently intelligent, miserable, classist, and spend every evening licking champagne of each other’s solid gold nipples in the union chamber, but can we take something functional like an exam centre and decorate it as a giant limestone palace? For no reason? Can we do the same with the students? Yes. Yes we can.

Bear with me, because this hasn’t always been my opinion. One of my teachers told me I’d have to wear a uniform in Oxford and I laughed cheerfully in his face, thinking it was just characteristic bullshit. Then the next thing I knew a pamphlet fell out of my welcome pack showing some conservative students dressed in the most ridiculous version of black tie-come-officewear I’d ever seen. What, I thought to myself, is this?

Then some time during a hazy first year summer some stupidly attractive individual glided past me on a bicycle in a perfumed wave of cigarette smoke and aftershave, pushing his unkempt hair away from his pierced left ear with one hand, and I had a realisation that absolutely everyone looks good in subfusc. If your dress sense is terrible, you’re forced into wearing a suit – an instant universal improvement for men and women alike. If you’re hot already then you ooze ‘I don’t want to be wearing this, but my God don’t I look good’ vibes. I realised I was going to have some trouble concentrating in exam schools from then on.

Like all the best sexy clothes, it serves no functional purpose (think suspenders, heels, braces, hats). It’s got complicated nylon layers I’d like to remove. Throwing water on people while they’re dressed as demurely as you’ve ever seen them is decidedly kinky. Blokes don’t get to ruin it by wearing tartan trousers or a hideous candy stripe blazer, as happens so frequently in Oxford. Black stockings.

I think it’s necessary to disassociate this from, dare I even say it, any Harry Potter saga related fantasies. Wizards in general are about as erotic as sandals with socks. Not to mention the fact that they’re all at secondary school. Just no.

Uniforms are sexy. Subfusc is a uniform. You do the maths.

Rebuttal: Jennifer Hilder

Skirted, shirted and robed, with hats in hands…in all the build up and adrenalin of getting to the exam on time, I hadn’t realised how plain daft we all looked, like hoards of twenty-somethings on a Harry Potter tour. As I walked from the marquee through South Schools up to my exam room last summer, surrounded by tens of other students, it wasn’t a feeling of serene inevitability that passed over me – rather a profound sense of irritation. What was this hat FOR, anyway?

And what struck me next was that no one else thought it strange, or even just a tiny bit weird, that we had happily all dressed up – in the same outfit; ordinarily the ultimate faux pas – to take our exams. By rights, hard-earned during those library days of desk hoarding and shower skipping, it should be pyjamas all the way. I said this to my friend taking the same exam but apparently she “enjoyed the tradition”. I didn’t.

Tradition has been a bit of a sticky word for millennia – since Cicero argued for first one thing and then the opposite based equally on mos maiorum, the ‘customs of the ancestors’. Cicero and Oxford alike have kept up a pretty good reputation over the years, but out of political necessity even Cicero had to move with the times – and the University should do the same.

So it mystifies me that subfusc clings on, seemingly unnoticed, despite being such an obvious, pointless manifestation of all the stereotypes twenty first century, open to all, (nine grand a year,) Oxford is trying to get away from. And Oxford really is trying to get away from these stereotypes, not least because, as many will know, Oxford (and, equally, of course, Cambridge) has had to repeatedly defend itself against claims of on-going elitism, public school bias, and even racism. This defence is justified – staff and students are constantly working to change things for the better – but sometimes all this talk doesn’t match up to reality. During that other, spectactularly subfusced ceremony, matriculation, I listened (hat in hand, again) first to a speech in Latin, and then one in English. The latter speech welcomed us to Oxford, a ‘modern institution’.As I remember, I was the only one who attracted looks for snorting out loud at such an ironic statement.

Let’s make Oxford a more normal place, and a more comfortable place, by ditching subfusc – because however much I admire that postcard of the be-gowned, cycling undergraduate, I can’t help remembering that cycling in my subfusc pencil skirt was, actually, pretty sub-fun.

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