It was once the tradition that scholars would wear their academic gowns at all times when they were at the university. I think here at Oxford the professors stopped teaching in robes sometime in the 1970s (probably because they were all wearing bell bottoms and love beads). Nonetheless, the academic gown is still used very heavily here. At many of the colleges, it is still required that the fellows of the college (faculty etc) wear their gowns at high table (I.e., at dinner – where the faculty sits at the “high” table and the lowly students sit in the rest of the Hall: think Hogwarts). Somerville, where I am a fellow, is somewhat more progressive, probably due to its history as a women’s college until the early 1990s. We only wear robes for a few rather formal occasions, such as important meetings, graduations, examinations, and the like. I’m just as happy not to have to wear a gown at high table, as I’m certain the sleeves would end up in my soup.
The first meeting of the governing body of Somerville (of which, as a fellow, I am a part), occurred this week, which was the first time I had to wear a gown. Although Somerville offered to provide one, a number of the other fellows recommended that I probably wanted to get my own. Taking a walk down the old cobblestone streets, I stopped into the robe-shop. The old man behind the counter muttered “Size 50.. Hmmm interesting”. He then showed me to a rack of black gowns that all looked pretty similar to me and he asked me to choose one. Then he said, curiously, “you know, the robe chooses the scholar”.
At this meeting of the governing body, I was officially Admitted to the Society of Fellows of Somerville – which entailed Dame Fiona Caldicott reading some Latin – and required me to respond in Latin. (No references to that scene in the movie top secret where the monks all speak pig latin). The rest of the meeting of the governing body was mostly a discussion of fiscal matters and the discovery that our college is certainly not infinitely wealthy, although some of the other colleges appear to be. (The endowments of the different colleges at Oxford differ by up to a factor of ten).
After the meeting there was champagne and tea for my official welcome, which was certainly a very nice touch. By this time, I’ve met many of the other fellows of the college, but this was an opportunity to meet the few remaining ones who have managed to avoid me so far. On the whole they seem to be extremely nice and they all seem to get along with each other too. I'm told this is not necessarily usual for an Oxford college. I like to think of us as Hufflepuffs (yes, I am a geek for twice quoting Harry Potter in this Blog entry). So far I've met three engineers, a biochemist, two chemists, two classicists, two psychologists, two biologists, two mathematicians, two historians, two other physicists, two italian scholars, and a german scholar. I think I can remember one or two of their names.