October 20, 2009

At Oxford, old traditions die hard. Or more aptly, they just keep growing older, getting more convoluted and unrecognizable, yet they stubbornly refuse to kick the bucket. That’s why on Saturday I dressed up like a penguin, shuffled into a theater with hundreds of fellow freshers, heard five sentences in Latin, and shuffled back out. Don’t get me wrong; it was great fun. But this year’s matriculation ceremony was basically a shadow of the occasion it used to be.

Once upon a time, to become an official member of the university students had to first sit an exam and then receive the full Latin matriculation recitation one by one, all the while dressed in their "subfusc": a black suit, white bowtie, and knee-length black gown. (As for women, they were of course once forbidden to matriculate at all, but now they wear a black skirt and ribbon.) Mortarboards complete the ensemble, and though they are never to be worn on the head until graduation, they must be carried through the entire ceremony – we hold the future in our hands, I suppose. Subfusc literally means a “dark, dull color,” which isn’t exactly inspirational, but it’s also a fairly apt description.

I have a confession. After we were all shepherded into the grand hall in our gowns, and a wizened, elderly gentleman strode to the podium carrying a giant, scepter-like cane and pronounced a Latin incantation to us…I couldn’t help but think I was witnessing Dumbledore greet the first-years at the Hogwarts welcome feast. The speaker proceeded to make a short but meandering speech about how over the following year we would “wallow in the life of the mind,” but he may as well have mentioned his love of lemon drops.

Now that I’m a proper Oxford student, my subfusc won’t stay in my closet for long. I’ll be putting it on for every formal dinner in the college, which is at least once a week. (Some colleges actually require students to wear their gowns to dinner every single night.) And since traditions have a tendency to evolve with the times, the modern student finds many additional uses for the outfit – for example, as a critical element of his costume for the Sexy Subfusc party the night of matriculation.

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