Should subfusc remain mandatory in Oxford?

Daniel Villar argues in favour of subfusc as a distinctive feature of Oxford, whereas Tess Leyland interprets it as a sign of the university's self-importance

YES: Subfusc may be anachronistic, but it is one of the many traditions that make the university unique

Daniel Villar

It isn’t every day that you find a Wadhamite defend tradition. Indeed, most of my fellow members of Wadham College would likely disagree with what I am about to say, considering that a few years ago when the continuing use of subfusc for exams came to referendum, within Wadham it lost. Thankfully it won in the university as a whole. But there you go, odd things do occur. I am a Wadhamite for subfusc.

Subfusc is one of those myriad of odd details which separates Oxford from other universities. Like formal hall, tutorials, and the Union’s No Confidence Debate, it is a tradition which harkens to an age when Oxford was a rather different institution than it is today. Which is no doubt why many students would like to get rid of subfusc.

The subfusc is a tad anachronistic. It is a sort of robe that we all have to wear, which has no apparent use other than to make our Facebook feeds look pretentious (especially when we wear it while punting down the River Isis and drinking Prosecco). Yet anachronism isn’t a reason in and of itself to remove something from usage.

Think of how dull life would be if we were to tear down every anachronism around us. The medieval structures of many Oxford colleges would have to go, since they aren’t as efficient in housing students as modern cement blocks would be. Many of the libraries would have to have bonfires of their collections now that they can have their collections fully digitised—why, perhaps this whole university is an anachronism, in this internet age where anyone can learn anything with access to the world wide web.

Anachronism is no argument for abolishing the subfusc. But by the same token things shouldn’t be blindly defended because they are anachronisms. Indeed, there are two sorts of anachronisms; there are harmless anachronisms and there are pernicious anachronisms.

A pernicious anachronism is one of substance, which can have an actual palpable effect on life. Examples of such anachronisms would be the ancient public schools, the electoral college, and the House of Lords. In each of these cases the defenders of these institutions call upon a Burkean defense of tradition to defend institutions whose influence on society is, on the whole, negative. Respectively, they lead to a system whereby the school your parents could afford to send you to dramatically alters your life chances, or create a system whereby the looser can win the presidency and subvert the ideals of democracy.

But while pernicious anachronism ought to be done away with, things aren’t so simple for all anachronisms. Issues of style are harmless anachronisms, which aff ect the veneer of life. These include formal hall, printed books, and subfusc.

Each of these is a relic of the past, and in some cases is superfluous. After all, ebooks could replace printed books, we could all just have dinner in cafeterias, and we at Oxford could do as other universities do, and not have subfusc. But in doing so we would be throwing away a beautiful tradition.

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Traditions such as subfusc serve a myriad of purposes, but one of the most important is to ground us. When we all walk into the Sheldonian Theatre, dressed in subfusc, we become grounded in the history of our university.

Generations of students at Oxford have done as we do, wearing subfusc, and hearing Latin phrases. It reminds us that no matter how long we spend here, we are just moments in the history of this university. It is at that moment that we become equal to the greats who stood as we do, dressed as we do, who went here.

Yes, subfusc is a bit anachronistic. Yet so is most of what makes life worth living. Live showings of Shakespeare, an old edition of the Oedipus Rex, bow ties, all these things are a tad anachronistic. Yet who would want to abolish them all? Subfusc should be kept in order to keep Oxford being Oxford. Getting rid of it would just be one step towards making Oxford like any other university, making it duller and less interesting. Subfusc is unique to our university: we should be proud of that fact.

So next time someone complains of having to wear subfusc, just tell them that if it annoys them so much, there are good universities in American without such traditions!


NO: Subfusc reinforces the view of Oxford as an institution that is selfimportant and out of touch

Tess Leyland

Everyone has their pre-exam ritual. Some people go for a run, some go to breakfast, others read over their notes. Desperately hunting around my note-ridden bedroom for a ribbon is not, I hope, something that will continue to be part of my ritual.

Some argue that wearing subfusc for your exams is a helpful part of the process. It allows you to enter the right frame of mind, to do the best that you can. I would disagree with this position. Rather, I found the process to be intimidating and patronising. Other than prelims, the last time I had been required to wear a uniform for exams was during my GCSEs. I find this makes the whole experience significantly more intimidating; memories of my sixteen-year-old self nervously filing into the exam hall, desperately trying to remember basic physics, reared their head. Not thoughts that are particularly steadying when you are about to take an exam at one of the world’s leading universities; confidence is, supposedly, key.

But it seems as though the university is intentionally trying to diminish that all important confidence on exam-day. Not only are you treated like a teenager facing their first exam, but you are presented with a fresh set of elaborate worries that have not been dealt with before. Where’s my ribbon? My mortarboard? Am I meant to wear it during exams? It is true that some colleges demand varying levels of academic dress for collections—but the fear of being turned away from your examination due to incorrect dress is an unnecessary stress.

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Yet the trials of subfusc do not end there; rather, the Oxford student is faced with another humiliation before arriving in their exam hall. Walking down High Street. Exams are taxing enough without hoards of tourists lining the streets to gawp at you, to take photos and point. I remember the feeling of being a performing monkey, a crowd pleaser. Leading me to wonder, is subfusc really anything more than another piece of the ‘Oxford’ show? Something to keep the tourists coming back?

Not only are there practical issues with subfusc, but more fundamental ones too. Subfusc takes away your choice. Examinations are stressful, and students should be allowed to feel as comfortable and relaxed as they possibly can. They should be allowed to control something about their situation. If they wish to wear academic dress, then great, but if not, they should not be forced to do so. Individuals are comfortable with different things, and to enforce a compulsory academic dress is to disregard that. We have all proven that we are more than able to work well in our own clothes; through tutorials, lectures and labs. We are all adults, and have been able to dress ourselves for a long time—the university should be concerned with our essays, not our outfits.

Furthermore, Subfusc is simply one more element of Oxford life that serves to alienate the institution from the rest of the world. Whilst most universities have academic dress for graduation, few demand their students to purchase it upon arrival. Yes, these quirks may have their charms; I am not denying that walking into the Sheldonian Theatre in your subfusc on matriculation is quite the experience. But this compulsory dress simply serves to further reinforce the view of Oxford as a self-important, out-of-touch, elitist institution. We strive to separate ourselves from other universities based on our dress; a dress that is intentionally anachronistic. We have to remind the world that we are different, that we are better.

Oxford has recently been confronted with its problem with access and admissions, with the Sutton Trust releasing a survey this week stating that 4 in 10 state school teachers would advise against applying to Oxford or Cambridge. But while traditions such as these still exist, why are we surprised by such statistics? They simply service to perpetuate the image of Oxford as a posh, public school haven, a world that is only for the select few. An image that students are forced to conform to during their time here, whether you wish to wear such uncomfortable formal wear or not.

Subfusc is one of the most visible signs of Oxford’s ‘unique’ nature that simply serves to consolidate the idea amongst state schools that ‘Oxford isn’t for me’. What may seem a tradition that is at best comic, and at worst inconvenient to many, has far reaching implications.

Subfusc is not an element of Oxford life that is crucial to our experience. Rather, it is one we would do better without.


  1. While I may recognize Tess’ points on comfort and freedom, I’d consider Oxford as elite institution (in terms of intellectual prowess and quality of students/tutors) and see nothing wrong about it, it’s one of the reasons I’ve applied there. State school students, including me, can apply here whatever their teachers advise them and should be able to make their own choices if they want to be Oxford-material

  2. Hardly anyone outside of Oxford knows about subfusc so it’s absurd to use that access as an argument, not to mention there’s no evidence whatsoever that suggests state schoolers/working class applicants would find that particularly off-putting. You specifically mentioned how 4 in 10 state school teachers don’t recommend Oxbridge – nowhere in the report did it say it was because of subfusc, and Cambridge *already* did away off subfusc so why aren’t these state school teachers recommending Cambridge? By your logic, they should since subfusc clearly, in your deluded mind, is the crucial factor!

    You’re also making Oxford sounds like Lady Gaga. It’s never about “self-importance” with Oxbridge – the importance of Oxbridge was from the wider society, and for good reasons. Some of the top graduates, best research (despite the relative lack of money compared to American universities), and the fame world-wide. Oxford *is* different.

    Elitist? If you wish for Oxford to not be elitist, then surely the logical thing to do would be to do away admission requirements altogether? You should then be asking admission tutors to no longer rank applicants by their academic ability/performance but from a random draw. Subfusc has nothing to do with elitism, admitting only the best and brightest does.

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