Dressed to Impress: Here Come the Girls!

The story behind the type of academic dress I’m going to look at in this final blog about our costume collection dates back to the 1800s, and a time when only men were admitted to universities.

Elizabeth Garrett, photographed in 1862.

Elizabeth Garrett, photographed in 1862.

This limitation didn’t deter all women, however, and some still tried to gain a university degree. Elizabeth Garrett, for example, studied at St Andrews in the 1860s, but her attendance was ultimately decided to be illegal. Although she eventually able to complete her studies elsewhere, becoming the first woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in the UK, for most women gaining a university degree was out of the question.

In 1877, however, the University of St Andrews did something quite revolutionary and established a distance-learning degree for women. Very early on it became known as the Lady Literate in Arts, or LLA for short. Through this course women could study a huge range of subjects, including Philosophy, History, Maths, Chemistry, Botany and Political Economy, to name only a few!

In order to gain the LLA degree, candidates had to sit and pass examinations in a certain number of subjects. Exams were held at local examination centres which were soon established in St Andrews, Dundee and London, and eventually in locations throughout the UK and wider world as well!

Very early on, efforts were made to make the LLA as equivalent as possible to the MA degree which men could achieve. This was managed by the scheme’s organisers, particularly William Angus Knight who was Professor of Moral Philosophy, by setting the candidates studying for the LLA the same standard exam papers as were set for the MA degree. Those hoping to achieve the Lady Literate in Arts degree also had to pass in the same number of subjects as those studying for the MA.

The LLA badge depicted St Andrews in the center and the sash was black and crimson, the same colours as the MA graduation hood.

The LLA badge depicted St Andrews in the center and the sash was black and crimson, the same colours as the MA graduation hood.

Those women who passed the relevant exams and gained the degree were authorised to wear a crimson and black sash, and a silver LLA badge. While the badges were made by a number of different silversmiths, normally in Edinburgh, the sashes were all supplied by a company called Christie and Kilpatrick. In order to reflect the fact that the LLA was almost equivalent to the MA degree, the sashes were made in the same colour and material as the MA graduation hood.

The LLA scheme ran from 1877 until 1932, when it was ultimately terminated due to a lack of interest. This was mainly because women had finally been admitted to the University in 1892, and more were choosing this option over the LLA.

However, for the 50 years which it ran for, the LLA was hugely successful, with over 36,000 women from all over the world entering the programme, over 27,000 of whom passed in one or more subjects and over 5000 who gained the full LLA diploma. The scheme also produced some notable alumni, including Marion Gilchrist, who was the first women to obtain a medical degree from a Scottish University.

-Deirdre Mitchell, Curatorial Trainee (Collections)



One thought on “Dressed to Impress: Here Come the Girls!

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