I was recently invited to attend an inaugural lecture by an academic who is an old friend of mine, and who had just been appointed to a professorship in his university (not DCU). His lecture was a tour de force on aspects of law and society, and the whole thing was most enjoyable and stimulating.  But what struck me almost as much was that he appeared (as did the senior university officer who chaired the event) in a gown. And so I was transported between intellectual admiration and a feeling I was sitting by the set of Goodbye Mr Chips.

However, I should be honest about myself. When I delivered my very first undergraduate lecture in 1980 as Trinity College Dublin’s brand new Lecturer in Industrial Relations, I did so in a gown. It’s not that this came naturally to me, but I was encouraged by my Head of Department to do so, and so I did. And I even kept it up for a while, until I thought that this was simply too daft for words.

But then again, as I watched my friend I did have just a moment when I thought that it was really rather nice, a moment for intellectual tradition to be clothed formally. But it only lasted for a moment. Those times are gone, really.

You’ll still find me in a gown at graduations. We owe that to the students, and probably more still they owe it to their parents. But not otherwise.

But perhaps the bigger question we need to address is what value we place on academic traditions – or whether the whole idea of tradition may be intellectually stifling.

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7 Comments on “Be-gowned”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I was partly educated at Oxford where one had to wear gowns for exams as well as various ceremonies. It didn’t bother me unduly & there was something touching about tourists trying to take one’s photograph. Not a problem I would probably have had otherwise. I blogged elsewhere about research that shows the requiring students to wear school uniforms improves their behaviour. One might conjecture that gowns have the same effect on academics.

  2. Jilly Says:

    I like the use of gowns for ‘special’ occasions (and a professor’s inaugural lecture is a special occasion after all, it’s not like a normal class). They’re certainly not practical for everyday wear: quite aside from being a bit daft on a typical wet Tuesday, most lecture theatres get quite hot enough as it is half way through a lecture, without the lecturer having to cope with being swathed in extra layers of cloth! But for a bit of pomp and circumstance every now and then, you can’t beat them…

  3. Vincent Says:

    I’m not sure when UCG changed, but I have seen old photos of begowned members of the College on the street.
    I found one of the book on protocol written after 1908, it describes the number of stitches the distance between coloured bands and the shape of the cape.
    And it must be said about the author that anyone that worries about the width of a band of Poplin has way to much time on his hands.

  4. John H Says:

    I worked in three different secondary schools where members of staff wore gowns. In two of them it was a a single member of staff, but in the third (which I won’t name) about 30 % of staff wore them. This about 4 years ago.
    Not to my taste. I’ve only ever worn them for graduations.

  5. Mark Dowling Says:

    I think the problem with this sort of thing is not getting rid of gowns per se but stopping the pendulum from swinging the other way. Given that Universities are workplaces, a little small-f formality is not out of place.

  6. Big Bad John Says:

    It’s a matter of “time and place”. The late President Ronald Reagan always wore a jacket and tie in the Oval Office because he felt this was a way of showing his respect for the high office with which he was entrusted. When I graduated I enjoyed getting to wear a gown for that one special evening. After all I had earned the right.
    Going off at a tangent, does anyone know the reason why, at graduations of undergraduates in the Republic of Ireland, men DON’T wear caps?

    • Vincent Says:

      As far as the NUI is concerned there is no issue, and never was an issue. From the Office of the Chief Herald, their only input is on the granting of Arms. Beyond that it is up to each individual University to make its own arrangements on hats gowns shoes rum at exams, whatever.

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