I love our gowns. Aside from the Vice-Chancellor’s pancake dinner or the post-comp hazing ritual, they’re perhaps Sewanee’s greatest tradition. I’ll freely admit that most, if not all, of my admiration is purely material. Gowns look fabulous, especially when worn while riding a bicycle in windy weather. Little about Sewanee is classier than a black gown billowing behind a student on their three-speed. Yet for all its aesthetic value, the gown is a tradition in need of existential change. By which I mean: we ought to end the practice of gowning as a reward for grades, and we should open the Order of the Gown to all Sewanee students. I want gowns for everyone, from day one of freshman year to the moment of graduation.
My reasons for being against gowning as it exists today are pretty simple. First, the idea that anyone might be able to guess someone’s GPA by the way they’re dressed is elitist, as well as a little creepy. Second, I’m fairly sure it’s the biggest reason (besides increasingly tedious Harry Potter references) that most gowned students decline to wear their gowns to class. And finally, I think gowning-for-grades misses an opportunity for egalitarian symbolism.
As the old term “town and gown” indicates, gowns have long served as a mark of academia’s ivory tower. Sewanee’s gowning tradition drives the cliché into hyperdrive, creating a turret atop the ivory tower in visually separating students by academic achievement. That Sewanee’s gowns unsubtly represent something otherwise extremely rude to talk about further enhances them as an artifact of elitism and an embarrassing fashion statement.
I suspect that the gown’s association with GPA has significantly diminished its visibility among students. Gowns should be cool, but it’s supremely lame when they serve as a fancier version of a “My Child is an Honor Student” bumper sticker. Actually, they’re even lamer than that – those bumper stickers, at least, are talking about a child. At Sewanee, gowns effectively serve as a symbolic inversion of the dunce cap. The reason we tend not to wear them, save for presentations and tests, is the same reason most people wouldn’t wear a t-shirt that says, “I Have Good Grades” – because it makes you look like a prig.
Alongside that, what is the purpose of the gown, really? Answers to this question usually include empty phrases like “recognizing academic excellence.” I can’t imagine a greater tautology than rewarding someone for having high marks. It’s like giving an Olympic medalist a trophy for good posture on the winner’s podium.
Even though this is a socialist website run by a rootless cosmopolitan, what I’m proposing here is actually pretty reactionary. Universal gowning isn’t a radical idea or a destruction of tradition; it’s a return to the gown’s earliest form at Sewanee. According to the University website, beginning in 1871, every student wore academic dress to class regardless of grade point average. Only in 1873 did William Porcher DuBose found the “Order of Gownsmen,” in doing so establishing the gown’s modern meaning at Sewanee.
It would be dishonest of me to leave the cost of gowns unaddressed here. Right now, buying a new gown from the bookstore costs over $100, a ridiculous price for a costume so rarely worn. Yet opening the Order would likely put more gowns into circulation at the University’s “Gown Library,” where students can borrow gowns for free. The bookstore would also have to begin buying gowns in greater quantities, likely reducing overall prices. In my opinion, gowns (and bluebooks!) should be free, but that’s a different story.
Gowns have the potential to be symbols of every Sewanee student’s inherent worth. When worn by everyone, the gown’s uniformly black color could represent a student’s status as one among equals. The buttons and patches affixed by each individual student to their gown, juxtaposed against the gown’s universal use, could gather the additional meaning that no gown is alike, just as every student is unique. The gown ought to be a sign not of the student’s achievement, but that they’re a student.
With the tradition as it exists now, gowns usually hang unworn in dorm room closets until exams, presentations, or formal ceremonies. It doesn’t need to be that way. The gown can become an enduring emblem of all Sewanee students through a return to its original, universal status. In turn, the Order of the Gown will live up to its duty as an organization “uniquely charged with the maintenance and promotion of the spirit, traditions, and ideals of the University” with three simple words: Gowns for Everyone.
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