What made you apply to Oxford? Was it the dreaming spires (read crumbling room, un-renovated since its birth in the 60s, in one of the omnipresent Wolfson Buildings)? Was it its worldwide academic reputation (people vomiting outside Parkend)? The vast libraries (where everything is on hold)? Or were you seduced by the (actually) fit people in the prospectus, laughing merrily about Nicomachean Ethics, or peering seductively up from a quantum mechanics problem sheet?
Even you, at your tender age, where you still resembled at least one of the cast members of ‘The Inbetweeners’, had some self-awareness. And by self-awareness, I mean vanity. But being as yet unschooled in said Aristoleian thought, it did not take long for some damaging sophisms to take root in your young mind.
‘All the people in that brochure are sexy’, you thought, blithely unaware of advertising’s false glare. ‘They also all wear robes’. Here you looked down at your school uniform, formed of that polyester which glints unhealthily in some lights. Therefore, you thought, if I wear that gown, I’ll be happy, clever and hot. I’ll have some of that. Possibly, you even giggled, because you cleverly knew the Latin meaning of ‘sub fusc’, or because it sounded like an expletive (plural).
What you did not reckon upon was a garment equally shiny, equally easy-iron. Apparel, which was, in fact, a more bat-like, more eleventh century, more Harry Pottah version of your current educational gaff’s garb. A ‘lay gown whose closed sleeves’, Wikipedia tells you, ‘have evolved into streamers through which the arm does not pass.’ To you these ‘streamers’ look more like the shoulder pads a dementor may have worn in the 80s, but when you see the alternative, you thank God you are not a clergyman. Besides, they are fun to play aeroplanes with after Matriculation.
So, after a simple matter of applying and getting in, and three trifling terms where all your preconceptions about Oxford glamour are put through a blender, emerging as the mincemeat form of hope and adulation, the biggest day in your first year social calendar is upon you. All around, people have been preparing for weeks; in some cases, months. Your first exam. What to wear, and how; two very difficult questions. What suits a mid length cape, from the A/W 1069 collection? Would you be channelling Marilyn or opt for boyfriend fit in your shirt choice? How do you tie the ribbon like you’ve made no effort? God damn it, would you have to upgrade your choice of beverage from Everyday Value to San Pellegrino?
Exams are the one event of the year you absolutely cannot be fashionably late for. I learnt this to my cost last year when I arrived ten minutes to my Romance of the People prelim. Heads turned. But in my excitement for Finland’s folk epic and 19th century Nationalism I had lost sight of what really mattered. My hair was bushy, my eyes baggy, my lips chapped from all the poetry. My neck ribbon hung limp and unloved. Worst of all, the bat wings of my cape were tucked in, giving me the air of a hobbit impersonator. If I have one piece of advice for my college children, it is this. Work your sub-fusc. You will forget your prelim result, preferably in a subterranean grotto with Kate Bush wailing softly from the speakers and a Vodka Monster in hand. But you won’t forget the judgement. The adjudicators who stand there for three hours to bark at you if you need to pee or take your gown off may seem like unlikely style consultants. But their gaze is unforgiving.