Now we’ve had our once-in-a-generation referendum, I finally know the tone to take revealing what the Proctors have known since Easter: that for all my exams this term, I won’t be wearing subfusc.
Yes, I’m unhappy with the result, but the referendum isn’t why I’m this year’s nonconformist: all it did was make salient something I already felt. While I’m in the confessional spirit, I might as well admit to the sin that I don’t think there should have been a vote at all: despite being known if at all as that presidential wannabe whose solitary creed was that referendums work miracles for engagement, I think a consultation would have suited the issue better, letting the University weigh the reasons we gave rather than whether or not to heed the masses’ voice.
There are two reasons why I’m not wearing subfusc. You might add bolshiness as a third, but the point of telling you the first two is to convince you there’s more to it than that: I really don’t relish being disruptive. In case we happen to share an exam hall, I’ll be the one trying to look discrete, wearing something subdued aimed not to catch your eye; I’ll also be wearing the gown, for the sole reason that for the sake of avoiding a fuss I want the examiners to know at a glance that I’m sitting a paper.
My first reason snaps neatly into a soundbite: exams should be tests of academic excellence, not your comfort with wearing subfusc. We have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to wear it – physicality, anxiety, class, a broader sense of ‘fitting in’, authentic gender expression, personal politics – and none of them are illegitimate. No student should have to prove to the Proctors that their reasons are adequate ones. Yes, there are counterarguments to some: perhaps subfusc helps with stress by taking the irksome choice of clothing from you; but what it also does is stop others choosing regimens of their own: settled routines with which they’re actually comfortable. If subfusc is so brilliant for mental health, or levelling, or even – as some have claimed – results, why is Oxford so lonely in requiring it?
Keep in mind that I’m not trying to persuade you to my point of view, but to explain why I’m doing what I chose to all those weeks ago. That first reason’s important but it’s pretty impersonal, and you’ve probably heard it enough for one term. If I had to sum up my second in two words, I’d choose ‘plainness’ and ‘pride’: not my pride in anything, but my discomfort with a kind of pride which, for one reason or another, subfusc symbolises for me.
It’s the pride of those who think of themselves as high-achievers: who feel like they’ve earned a place here and see themselves as largely self-made. It’s that of those who fit in almost too snugly: who revel in traditions, rather than being at best bemused and at worst unsettled, and who play up to their pick of Oxonian stereotypes. It’s not necessarily class-based: I’m the Home Counties grammar end of middle; and, since someone somewhere’s thinking it, it’s not middle-class guilt either. It’s just a mentality that isn’t mine.
I don’t take pride in being at Oxford. I didn’t choose to be clever or to have an aptitude for hard work; I didn’t choose a supportive home and capable teachers. I’m here because I’m lucky: because a happy coincidence of heredity, upbringing, and good fortune on the day meant A-levels were a breeze and I performed OK at interviews. I’m uncomfortable with an outfit that feels exclusive because to me the criterion is good enough luck. Maybe I’m wrong to spy elitism, but that doesn’t change that being how I feel, and during this term’s campaign even many in favour saw it too: our dress marks us out, they said, as the intellectual high-achievers, the ones who’ve ‘earned’ the right to be here.
I’m not a testifying Quaker, as appealing as their ideas about simplicity are. I’m just uncomfortable not dressing plainly: uncomfortable enough that tempting the Proctors is more attractive than following the rules. I hope I won’t be a nuisance.
PHOTO: Oxford University.