At times, the Oxford community can feel like a village, and it invariably influences the way we dress there in comparison to home. You can’t even walk through the quad or down the street without people you’ve known for years seeing you. Once, someone I was dating passed me on his bike while I was wearing my gym kit and I freaked out to be seen in that dilapidated, sweaty state. If you are interested in a person, it can put a HUGE amount of pressure on you to look attractive on a daily basis, wherever you go – there’s always the chance you could run into them. Or even if you aren’t trying to impress someone special, we’ve all seen posts about people dressing up in the hope of an Oxlove.
At home, the way you dress isn’t of much consequence, but I’m not sure whether that is more freeing or constricting. There isn’t anything inhibiting your self-expression, but equally that self-expression may not make much of an impact on others. At least in Oxford, if I’m going to be one of under ten women wearing bow ties to her exams, or bright red velvet suits to formals, then I might be successful in suggesting to my peers that they have full right to subvert gender expectations in this traditionalist university. Yet at the same time, I see group chats of my female friends agonising over whether a floor-length or a mid-length dress is appropriate for a certain event. It pains me a little. Formality is more in the combination of colour and pattern schemes, in whether one conveys an aura of elegance and composure with their dress, not in what society tells us is a decent quantity of ankle to display to the world. Knowing you will be seen causes some to revert to convention, not exploit that fact as a means to subvert it.
My home life is split between Bristol and Shoreditch. I’m sure there are others who come from smaller areas (or at least areas which aren’t pretentious messes of vintage clothing), who might think there is less judgement at university than at home. But I’m used to seeing queens storming home from the local drag bar or artists beneath Banksy’s paintings drinking £4 coffee in dungarees. Though I often put less effort into it, no matter what I wear at home, it never crosses my mind that the people of Bristol or London are going to judge me. Bristol has an enormous clubbing culture, and subsequently I think people put less effort into their attire, as people drunkenly falling into the river nightly is so ingrained into the Bristolian identity. However, since the Oxford clubs are not numerous and are distinct in their identities, I think their frequenters can reflect this. When people ask me why I’m in my most dire rainbow translucent bomber and sequin skirt depicting a supernova in glitter (real items, folks), I reply ‘always dress for Cellar’.
At Oxford your clothes can give you an ongoing reputation, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the worst thing in the world – you have chosen your clothes and they’re an extension of your identity. Not the worst way to be identified either – rather than more sconce-worthy events you’d really rather bury…
The microscopic Oxford lens could go either way – if you have the confidence to wear whatever you wish, I think it can really help you thrive and set an example to people that they can also express themselves. The oddities of people’s eccentric dress are one of the little quirks I love seeing in Oxford. Putting on my scarf depicting an 18th century map of London and my leggings adorned with the first folio of Hamlet makes me feel like I know who I am, and that I’m in the right place when I sit in the middle of the kaleidoscope of English students. But for those who don’t have an English student’s lack of shame or would get anxious that most definitely bumping into someone they know, Oxford’s college-based, insular circles can end up keeping people inside their shells.
My hope is that as many people as possible try to use this unique university dynamic to have their dress sense make a meaningful impact on others, rather than letting the judgement of their peers limit their expression in any way.