Dressed to Impress: St Andrews and the Scarlet Gown

As MUSA is a university museum a large part of our costume collection consists of academic dress, but this doesn’t just mean the black gowns and coloured hoods of graduation. There are many other types of academic dress and in this series of blogs I’m going to take you on a tour through some of the more unusual types, and the stories behind them.

At St Andrews the red gown worn by undergraduate students is perhaps the most famous example of academic dress, and at MUSA was have several examples in our collection. However, although it has now became symbolic of the University of St Andrews, originally this signature outfit would have been worn by undergraduate students at all the ancient Scottish universities.

This red gown was worn by at least three different students from 1901 to 1971!
This red gown was worn by at least three different students from 1901 to 1971!

The gowns were introduced to Scotland in the 1600s, and are first mentioned at St Andrews in 1677. We’re not really sure who first introduced them to Scotland, but it seems likely that they were somehow imported from the continent as there is evidence of them being worn at the University of Louvain in the 1400s. It’s generally accepted (and later accounts confirm this) that the brightly coloured gowns were introduced to try and keep the young undergraduate students out of trouble, mostly by making them very easy to spot in a crowd!

By the early 1700s, most students at St Andrews would have been wearing the red gown. They were not cheap, however, as students had to buy all the material and then pay for someone to make it for them, possibly a local tailor. The account of one student from 1712 tells us that he spent £7 17 shillings on the material, then a further £1 12 shillings paying someone to make the gown for him. This might not sound like much but in today’s money it’s actually around £800!

Because gowns were so expensive, students often inherited gowns from older students, rather than purchasing a new one. The gown pictured here was used by at least three different students over the course of 70 years, from 1901 to 1971!

This painting from our collection dates from the 1700s and shows the original student gowns without sleeves.
One painting from our collection, which dates from the 1700s, shows the original student gowns without sleeves.

Over its long history many things about the gown have changed significantly, including its design. Originally red gowns would have been sleeveless and would not have had the velvet yoke, or collar, which they have today. But in 1838 the students complained to the University that the gowns did not offer enough protection from the cold, wet and windy St Andrews weather! The University agreed and the red gown was made longer, and the large sleeves and velvet yoke that we know today were added.

As well as the shape of the gown, when it is worn has also evolved over time. In the 1600s, students had to wear them all the time to ensure that they didn’t get into trouble. (Or if they did, they would quickly be spotted!) By the 1900s, however, students only had to wear their gowns to class, although many continued to wear them to official university events, such as formal hall dinners or the installation of a new Rector.

By the 1930s the red gown had become an important symbol for the University of St Andrews but during the 2nd World War there were fears that students couldn’t afford to use the 16 ration coupons required to purchase one. To tackle this problem, the University decided to buy 38 gowns for use by the students to ensure that the red gown would continue to be seen at St Andrews.

Traditionally students never do up the clasps on the front of their gowns.
Traditionally students never do up the clasps on the front of their gowns.

Perhaps as a result of these safeguarding efforts, the gown is still worn at St Andrews today, mostly for chapel services, formal dinners in halls, by some to examinations and, most famously, for the traditional ‘pier walk’ which takes place after chapel each Sunday during term-time.

As the red gown has been in use for several centuries, there has been plenty of time for traditions to develop surrounding how the gown is worn. For example, in memory of John Honey, students never do up the clasps on the front of the gown. Honey was a student at St Andrews in the 1800s who swam out and rescued men who had been shipwrecked off East Sands. Students today, in case they too should ever find themselves in the North Sea, never do up the clasps on their gown.

There are also different ways for each year group to wear the gown. Only 1st years wear it properly, high up on the shoulders, while 2nd years wear it just slightly further down the shoulders. 3rd years wear it off the right or left shoulder depending on whether they are a science student or an arts student and 4th years wear it down at the elbows, to show that they are ready to cast off their undergraduate gown and put on the black graduate gown.

The raisin string on one gown from our collection has a small sporran attached.
The raisin string on one gown from our collection has a small sporran attached.

Many students also wear multi-coloured strings on their red gowns. These are called ‘raisin strings’, and are given to students by their ‘academic parents’. Academic parents are older (3rd or 4th year) students who take new students under their wing and guide them through the first few months of university. The raisin string is made up of three colours (blue, red and yellow) if your parent is a 3rd year, and four colours (blue, red, yellow and black) if your parents is a 4th year. Raisin strings also normally have a small token attached to them, which is meant to be something which reminds the parent of the child they are giving the raisin string to.

These traditions surrounding undergraduate gowns continue to be enthusiastically maintained by the students of St Andrews so that, after almost 400 years, the scarlet gown can still be seen in the town on a daily basis. Indeed, the University of St Andrews is now the only university in Scotland where the red gown is still regularly worn.

-Deirdre Mitchell, Curatorial Trainee (Collections)



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