Debate: Down with the Gown?

Is pretension damaging our reputation? Or is it what makes Cambridge great? SIMON JOHNSON and EVIE PRICHARD share their thoughts.

Gowns, formals, bedders – familiar concepts to any Oxbridge undergraduate. But are they harmless traditions, or damaging displays of out-dated pretentiousness? 

SIMON JOHNSON argues that it is time to modernise. 

Who doesn’t love their gown? Strolling down King’s Parade I enjoy the attention of tourists who presumably think that an overgrown bat has been let loose.

But this gown-culture is not without its problems.

My first inkling of a problem came when I gave a group of year 11 students from a London comprehensive a tour around my college. In response to intelligent cross-questioning, I couldn’t think of a sensible reason why we should wear gowns to dinner. There was general bafflement and surprise that we were worried about such things and they agreed Cambridge “wasn’t really for them.”

These people will be applying for university soon, and they should be considering the best university in the country. But instead they are dissuaded by our image of outdated pretension.

If we are serious about creating a true meritocratic university, we have to ask why students from disadvantaged backgrounds aren’t applying here. And one of the reasons is the antiquated, self-important image that surrounds us. The outdated image of gowns, formal halls and bedders endures much longer than the academic or social benefits of a Cambridge degree.

By persisting with them, we project an image of a university that is out-of-touch and irrelevant. They look into the Bubble, see be-gowned students, and think: “I could never belong here.” A few are attracted by the quaintness of it all, but more are put off by a reputation of ivory-towered pretentiousness.

Traditions are fine, and they’re worth preserving if they don’t do any harm. But when old customs are actively damaging, it is time to stop them. So please, Cambridge, as much as we love our gowns, we need to ask if it is really worth it.

Should we hang up the gown?

EVIE PRICHARD argues that pretentious traditions can be beneficial.  

There can’t be many places on earth more pretentious than Cambridge. Whether you like to wear your gown while discussing Kierkegaard and sipping port, or prefer getting free buzzcuts in Kambar, we have a pretension to suit every taste. But while all this wankiness may make us snigger or roll our eyes, is there really any reason to condemn it?

After all, it’s a part of Cambridge’s essence. Traditions, which come hand-in-hand with studying at one of the oldest universities in the world, can be easily mistaken for pretension. But although it’s true that not many institutions require a Latin grace before dinner or encourage the wearing of gowns, most students would agree that these (mainly optional) aspects of college life bring us closer together. I’ve heard many people say that they didn’t feel like they fit in at Cambridge at first – it was only after being part of the communal, and sometimes ridiculous, traditions that they felt like they belonged.

The rest of our pretentiousness may be equally beneficial. These are the years of our lives when we’re free to make prats of ourselves, whether we do so because we’re trying to be individual or because we’re trying to fit in. Our time at university is when we should be most concerned with discovering who we are and who we want to become. It’s only natural that we should overshoot every now and then in our attempts to be interesting, clever, unique or whatever else it is that’s defining us this week.

It’s this overkill which leads to pretension. OK, perhaps the natural process is a little exaggerated in Cambridge. But the Bubble distorts so many aspects of our lives that it should be no surprise that our pretension, like so much else, thrives on the mix of hectic terms, neuroses and an excess of challenging peers.

It’s these things which make the Cambridge experience what it is. Without them and the pretension they breed we might as well be living normal university life, with time for sleep and a couple of essays a term. And who could possibly want that?

Illustration by Claudia Stocker

What do you think? Use the comment board below to share your thoughts. 

  • Wow…

    An actual debate in the debate section?

  • overkill

    thanks for reminding me how much i hate the word pretentious

    • Mathematician

      Just to confirm, that's 11 pretentious/pretensions in this article. 11.

  • L'Oreal

    If people are put off coming to Cambridge by the fact that they have to wear a black bit of cloth, that's just a bit dim. In other universities you have to wear a bright red gown when you graduate (srsly).
    In all seriousness, Cambridge does have wanky pretentious traditions. They're part of the fun of it. But ban the gowns and we might as well ban formal halls, port at dinner, matriculation dinner, halfway hall etc. etc. Going to Cambridge, as we all know, is an excuse to pretend you've joined the upper classes for three years. Maybe this is elitist and people feel left out… or maybe, at your matriculation dinner, wine in your hand and DoS and your side, you feel a little bit important. Yes, I am meant to be here, yes, I will wear a gown and have free wine. Like L'Oreal, it's because I'm worth it. And how can this be a bad feeling, no matter what your background?

    • Oh my god

      that is a great comment.

  • just to say

    Simon does look like a giant bat in his gown, as he is extremely tall. Maybe we should only ban them for tall people?

  • bored

    Why didn't you just tell the school kids the truth? That is 99% of the time you don't wear gowns to dinner.. It's only for graduation and matriculation. They probably thought we dress up like that for every meal.

  • Modernist

    Firstly, "wankiness" – Freudian typo? Love it.

    Secondly, I agree with Simon that traditions are worth preserving if they don't do any harm. But why in the world would a sixth-former from *any* school feel like they don't fit in because of something like gowns?! Smells a bit like inverse snobbery. If you're close-minded enough that the concept of gowns scares you out of applying to a University then maybe you're not the right character anyway? (Regardless of background, of course!).

    L'Oreal up there said it all, really. It's not the gown that makes you belong. If you're accepted to Cambridge, you belong automatically, whoever you are! It IS, however, undeniably up to each individual to make the most of that…if you really want to you can whinge and find a fault in everything, but how about just enjoying the experience instead?

  • Emma

    Send the sixth formers to King's, no gowns here!

  • Confused

    Buzzcuts at Kambar?

    • indie

      at the movember party last week. keep up.

  • Ross

    "The outdated image of gowns, formal halls and bedders endures much longer than the academic or social benefits of a Cambridge degree" is just a completely false statement. I stopped reading there!

  • aksdjfhdskj

    Oh eff off. You'll be doing away with traditions like the rule of law next.

  • Gownton Abbey

    It's not pretentious when Oxbridge students wear gowns.
    It is pretentious when Durham students wear them.


    Bedders are weird. College spies. I'm an adult, and given some encouragement, I might even be able to empty my own bin fairly regularly and do some hoovering myself. I reckon I can be trusted with my own privacy, instead of this weird boarding school set up.

  • Someone

    It's pretentious, no doubt about it. You go to university to be educated, not to dress like a panzy.

  • Jimmy

    Or maybe these 'traditions' are enforcing the perception of classism within England? We are in the 21st century, it's almost as if we are stuck in the past, with idealistic values and with the perception that they actually hold value? I don't buy it.

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