G is for … Gowns, red ones

Gowning upI think this post should be dedicated to my school English teacher Mrs. Dorward, a petite but forceful lady and St. Andrews graduate. She had of course given up her red gown by the time she became an English teacher, but she always who wore her black teaching gown hanging from her elbows, thereby giving the school corridors an extra sweep each time she passed.

She was also a great ambassador for St. Andrews and chivvied a bunch of us up there on a sight-seeing tour where she explained the bizarre but compelling rules that gave rise to the off-the-shoulder look. By the time I graduated I too had perfected the oddly hands-up way of walking which looks like a surgeon who has just scrubbed up but is actually to stop the gown falling off altogether. Clearly a habit that is difficult to break.

Mrs. D. was a great ambassador for St Andrewsand I imagine quite a few of us owed our time there to her, even if we didn’t do English. As for the red gowns, in my day they were almost-compulsory for a number of activities, especially dinner in halls. The more independent-minded students rebelled against this and took pride in doing without the red encumbrance, but according to this blog, it looks like at least some of the new generation are getting to grips with the old ways.

St. Andrews Castle

'Semie' fashion, circa 1972

In fact I’ve read that at one time the Scottish universites (with the exception of Edinburgh) all had undergraduate gowns and red was chosen so that students could be spotted if/when they were up to no good (the very idea!) around the town. From the student point of view, the gowns are made of a knobbly wool (knobbles increasing with age and use) that ressembles a dressing gown as much as anything else, providing a useful cover-up on all sorts of occasions. I’m thinking particularly of breakfast in halls, where nightwear was certainly not allowed but nightwear + gown was fine, thus allowing the occasional late-night reveller the luxury of a cooked breakfast even if the early lecture was a walk too far. I had also forgotten until today that wearing a gown allowed free entry to the ruined St.  Andrews Castle (good for tourism, I suppose) and here’s a photo of me getting the look.  The Castle was most popular at the end of the academic year when the occasional burst of warm sun could be guaranteed to coincide with the exam season. This looks earlier than June, but polo neck sweaters (bought for next to nothing from the original St. Andrews Woollen Mill shop) were popular all year round, for obvious reasons.

As for the year, judging from the way the collar of my gown is dangling down my back, definitely my second year.

Gowning up photo courtesy of rexhammock on Flickr

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2 Responses to G is for … Gowns, red ones

  1. optilas says:

    First years wore the gown as it should be worn on the shoulders and could use the clip to keep out the biting wind.
    Second and third years dropped a shoulder or two and fourth years carried the gown on their elbows which was a bit awkward but just to show off.
    My gown was bright scarlet with a nice purple bit on the shoulder.
    Some gowns were much darker red and didn’t look as attractive.
    Twenty five years after graduation I loaned my gown to a niece who studied 5 years before continuing on to a phD.
    Another ten years later I sold it on eBay; so someone out there got a real bargain as my gown was kept in pristine condition and was as good as new even 35 years on.

    • debutnovelist says:

      I can’t remember at what point I got rid of mine. I think ii bought it second-hand from the union shop (a fly Fifer!) so it was never quite pristine. Maybe I sold it back to them. Wish I had kept it now, although to be fair I am always trying to get Mr B. to de-clutter.

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