Formal fury as New College sweep in with punitive gown fines

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Several students at New College have expressed concern over the introduction of fines to enforce the wearing of formal attire. At the end of 0th Week, the College announced to students that all diners at formal dinner must wear formal gowns and that failure to comply would result in a fine.

An email from the JCR Food and Bar Officer Andrew North from earlier this week stated: “You must wear your gown to Formal and you are liable to be fined if you do not. Although there is no dress code, given it is a Formal occasion, it is recommended that you dress smartly.”

North went on to write: “I’m not going to prescribe exactly what this is as you’re intelligent people. But tracksuit bottoms, hooded tops (‘hoodies’), and sports kit would generally not be regarded as smart. The dress code for Guest Night remains as a suit and tie for men and the equivalent for women.”

Within New College, formals take place on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:15pm, with a Guest Night every other week. The dinner includes a waiter service and a three course meal. Whilst formal dinners are in keeping with Oxford tradition, New College’s recently stated rules are significant, as it is unusual for a college to explicitly impose strict punishments in relation to formal dress.

An unnamed New College student argued against the decision stating: “It’s just another instance of an unnecessary formality, perpetuating aspects of the university which the public associate with snobbery and elitism. I think stories such as this only exacerbate the divide between Oxford and the outside world.”

However, another student argued in favour of the gowns, stating: “The gowns are all part of the general atmosphere during formal dinners. It’s genuinely nice to dress up and enjoy a lovely meal with friends.” 

Academic gowns have been worn within Oxford since the 12th Century and were initially designed for practicality, as with no formal lecture halls and faculty buildings, teaching took place in draughty churches. However, in recent years the gowns have served a symbolic purpose, designed to maintain formality in meals and exams. Indeed, the necessity of the attire itself has been brought into question in recent debates regarding the abolition of sub fusc.

The actions of New College reflect the increasingly disparate policies between colleges relating to Oxford traditions. Other colleges have discarded such traditions completely, such as Wadham College, where formals are not held. However, other colleges such as St Catherine’s only hold formals on special occasions. New College’s stance has highlighted the University-wide difficulty of  improving public perception and encouraging a socially diverse mix of students, whilst simultaneously maintaining the archaic traditions that have shaped the University culture.

PHOTO: Jim Linwood

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