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From the High Table: formal dinners at Oxford

I vividly remember spending my first ever evening in Oxford at the Freshers’ Formal Dinner. Surrounded by strangers and the portraits of those who came before me, I was in for quite the ride. I had heard a lot about formals when I still romanticised attending Oxford – seeing people post videos in their subfusc, sipping college branded wine, and enjoying three-course meals. Yet, after my first formal in question I soon realised that it wasn’t as dreamy and Harry Potter-esque as I’d once imagined. 

To be fair, the reason for this was partly my college. While it is customary to wear your gown to formals, this is not a requirement at St. Hugh’s College. Although I have no particular interest in wearing my gown any more than I have to, I can’t help but feel it would add to the traditional ambiance of enjoying formalling in Oxford. In radical contradiction, when I attended a formal at Magdalen, many students dressed casually, yet the gown remained a staple. At Hugh’s, students often dress extravagantly, perhaps to compensate for the rather unconventional setting of our ex-war infirmary dining hall. I’ve found myself dressing over-the-top for every formal, resulting in an unhealthy amassment of charming ankle-length dresses… Despite the Hughsie way of formalling differing from my initial expectations, I always enjoy going.

During my year abroad, I found myself losing the desensitisation to the somewhat absurdity of formalling traditions and culture. Just this week, I visited Hugh’s in time for their weekly Tuesday formal and felt embarrassingly amused by the Latin grace at the beginning. Rising for the high table as they filtered through like royalty seemed startlingly comical to my friends and me, leading to exchanged snickers across the table muffled by the bread we’d stuffed our faces with.  

Setting aside the Latin prayers, formal dinners at Hugh’s are quite enjoyable and usually delicious. While some meals I’ve had at other colleges (I won’t point fingers, but Keble is a worthy mention) have been pretty tragic, the formal menus at Hugh’s tend to live up to the hype. The starters are consistently impressive, especially when they whip out the soup, and the menus vary week by week. At less than £15, it’s incredible how you can enjoy a fancy full three-course meal, making it a viable option for students seeking a sophisticated dinner without breaking the bank. One could even say there is a certain value in learning the art of formal dining, allowing valuable training in the navigation of knives and forks. Surrounded by peers, there is hope that this learning and training is made less intimidating. 

Now that I’m away from Oxford for the year, in an air of odd nostalgia, I do miss formals. Dressing up with friends, cracking open a bottle of wine, and fighting over the butter are weird but unique experiences that I don’t think would exist in many places outside of Oxford. While I’m well-versed on the antiquated traditions at Oxford, it’s always amusing when I invite friends from back home to join me and they look at me with confusion. Formals are an integral part of the Oxford experience, and while they may appear peculiar from the outside, I’m grateful for the opportunity to partake in something so distinctively Oxford.

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