Code Red: Why the Scarlet St Andrews Gown is a Tradition Worth Embracing
14th August, 2018
Look at any promotional material from the University of St Andrews and you’ll be inundated with images of the iconic scarlet undergraduate gowns, which have come to epitomise the quaint and traditional atmosphere at Scotland’s oldest university. Here Ruth, from the Churchill Gowns team, takes us through the history and uses of the gown.
What the Gown is Officially Used For
The red gown used to be compulsory for tutorials and lectures which, even on the coast of Scotland, must have got a little stuffy! Thankfully the wearing of the gown is no longer mandatory for every day but it is used at formal occasions including dinners, debates and chapel services.
The most iconic use of the gown is for the weekly pier walk. Every Sunday a gaggle of scarlet-clad students congregate in the main quad, after chapel, and walk the length of the pier, led by the Chapel Choir. Legend has it that this tradition commemorates the bravery of a student, John Honey, who, in 1800, put his own life in danger rescuing five sailors from a stricken ship off the coast of the of St Andrews. Whether you believe the legend or not, it’s a novel way to walk off a Sunday hangover and work up an appetite for a roast, especially if you walk the more treacherous high wall of the pier!
What the Gown is Unofficially Used For…
Of course if you really want to get your money’s worth, there are plenty of other ways to get additional use out of your red gown.
First of all, they make a great freshers week profile picture. While all your school friends are representing their new student-status with social media posts of them clutching armfuls of VKs in a provincial nightclub, why not go for something a little more original? A boomerang of you being swept into the North Sea in a scarlet gown seems far more romantic!
Second, they’ll keep you warm. If your mum is anything like mine, she’ll never stop asking whether you’re warm enough. This only intensifies when you start university and the separation anxiety kicks in, so what better way to allay her fears than invest in a giant fleecy cape? Use it as a makeshift bed spread or dressing gown, or wrap yourself in it after the infamous dawn ‘may dip’ in the frosty sea. Maybe this peace of mind will be enough to persuade mum to pay for it too…
Third, it makes a great heirloom. OK so heirlooms may sound a little grandiose and irrelevant when you’re just starting out at university, but what better way to make your grandchildren really earn their keep than by boring them with tales of student misdemeanours whilst sobbing nostalgically into a moth-eaten gown?
The poet and St Andrews alumnus RF Murray even included the gown in several poems as the focal point of his nostalgia, writing in 1891:
But, howsoever rich the store,
I’d lay it down,
To feel upon my back once more
The old red gown.
The scarlet gown came under attack in 2017, with accusations that the associated traditions appeared ‘elitist’ and might ‘put off disadvantaged students’. Perhaps surprisingly these concerns were met with derision by current students and alumni, who leapt to the defence of the iconic gown. On the contrary, they claimed, the gown promoted a sense of inclusion among St Andrews students, being a very visual representation of a united student body.
Perhaps one of the more justified criticisms of the gowns was that the price prevented all students from taking part in the tradition, as new gowns have traditionally cost around £159. Luckily there is a healthy market for second hand gowns and new market entrants, including Churchill Gowns, are selling the regulation red gown for under £100 - so there are definitely cheaper options out there if you shop around.
Finally, no ancient tradition would be complete without a host of crackpot superstitions associated with it. For one, way in which the red gown is worn changes depending on what year of study you’re in. First years wear it fully on the shoulders, second years with one sleeve on the shoulder, and final years with it shrugged off both sleeves. Supposedly this represents students gradually ‘shrugging off’ their student status, although perhaps it has more to do with students becoming increasingly lazy as they get accustomed to a life of tracksuit bottoms and super noodles! It’s also supposed to be bad luck to fasten the gown or to wash it which, to our mind, seems like the best advertisement for snapping up a new gown from Churchill Gowns, rather than taking your chances on a second-hand one!
The scarlet St Andrews undergraduate gown is available brand new for £99 from Churchill Gowns. Click here to find out more and place an order.