Source: Patrick Welham
If, like me, you are under 5ft 2in tall and are not in the habit of wearing a tie, you’ll know that graduation ceremonies can be a trial. We had ours in May, and, as usual, carrying off the academic gown was every bit as challenging as keeping on clapping and smiling through the long stream of degree presentations.
I arrived in the robing room to find several of my female colleagues engaged in impressive feats of upper body contortion as they attempted to secure their gowns by safety-pinning the button loop of the front neckband through the top of their blouses to their bras.
As I was wearing a round-necked silk blouse, I wasn’t planning to go anywhere near a safety pin. Instead I spent the whole ceremony holding down the neckband with one hand in an effort to stop the heavy gown falling off my shoulders. And I was not alone.
Not that men fare much better. Some complain that they feel as though they may be strangled when they hook the neckband under their tie to stop it falling off. So what is it with academic gowns? Why have they been so badly designed?
Historians of the subject, like Nick Groves, editor of Shaw’s Academical Dress of Great Britain and Ireland, tells me that academic gowns were never designed as such. They evolved from their roots in medieval England, when the cloak and hood was everyday attire for both men and women. As universities and, later, schools were established, versions of the cloak and hood, which drew on lay and ecclesiastical garments of the time, were worn every day to teach and lecture.
According to John Martin, managing director of Marston Robing, the problem is that the traditional gown is still made for broad male shoulders, and for people over 5ft 5in tall. So if you are on the petite side, you are always going to look and feel a bit awkward. But he also notes, sympathetically, that between 12 and 15 per cent of all graduates have a chest size of 32in or less – and 90 per cent of those are women.
“Why should women take longer to robe than men on their graduation day?” he asks. “They want to be off with their friends and family [as much as men do].” This kind of enlightened attitude seems a long time coming, considering that women have been graduating from universities since the 1800s.
According to Groves, the hood is also part of the problem. In medieval Europe, it sat further up, around the shoulders, while today it hangs lower down the back, drawing the whole weight of the garment off the shoulders if you are not careful. “The style has fossilised and the hood, in particular, is a menace unless you are used to wearing one regularly,” Groves says. “I wear mine once a week as I belong to a choir.”
The good news is that changes are finally afoot. Marston Robing has just released a “slim fit” gown, and both Marston and Ede & Ravenscroft – which has been hiring out gowns since the late 1800s – have been making new gowns and retrofitting old ones featuring strategically placed Velcro.
Marston Robing is also hoping to launch a new mortar board for Muslim graduates who need to wear a headscarf. And these days, all gown hire companies make bespoke robes for people with disabilities, particularly wheelchair users – including some specially produced for honorary degree awards following the London Paralympics. James Middleton, company director of Ede & Ravenscroft, tells me that one of his fondest memories is the smile of a man who had asked the company to make an academic robe for his guide dog, without whom, he insisted, he couldn’t have obtained his degree.
Meanwhile, in 2008, designer Vivienne Westwood (no stranger to the trials of academic attire herself, having accepted honorary degrees and fellowships from King’s College London, Heriot-Watt University, the University of Dundee and the Royal College of Art) created a new robe for King’s, which made use of buttons on the shoulders.
But, Velcro or no Velcro, when it comes to women, there is still some way to go. One gown hire company, J. Wippell & Co, still recommends that females wear “a small jacket …if at all possible; if not, certainly a blouse or dress with reasonable shoulders, which will help the gown stay in place”. It sounds as though it may be time to bring out the 1980s power suit again, then.