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Gowns for Everyone

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.

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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11 replies on “Gowns for Everyone”

Ridiculous. Entitlement is a serious problem with many people today, and the author puts that on full display. WORK for what you want. Work hard!! Earn it, and you’ll appreciate it more.

I was involved in a Facebook chat with some Sewanee parents about this article (i.e. the Gowns for everyone piece), and Steven Saltsman thought that Max might want to discuss the issue with an alum (and also a current parent). Steven asked me to post on the Spectre website, so here I am.

Very well written. Sewanee is already filled to the brim with elitist ways to signal out the rich, the best, the most liked, the best grades, etc. Why can’t we have one unifying symbol that we all can wear proudly, without it giving out personal information such as our GPA? In the end, we’re all here for a diploma. Our diploma doesn’t have our GPA listed, or our greek affiliation, or if we dressed up for class each day. I think re-branding the gown as a unifying symbol of our community is an awesome idea.

Being accepted to Sewanee is an accomplishment. Being gowned is another accomplishment. Graduating is the final accomplishment. It’s no time to turn gowning into a “participation trophy.” Continue recognizing actual accomplishment for work done and goals reached.

Well said, Max. I agree that the gown can easily be perceived as an elitist symbol for the wealthy, witty, and well-connected, but I don’t believe that universal gowning will have the effect you’re trying to achieve. The gown has been falling out of vogue for years and years, and if the goal is to get more students to wear them, enjoy them, and, ultimately, to make this garment part of the “Sewanee experience,” I think you would be better off trying to change the meaning of the gown than to eliminate its meaning altogether. Right now, it’s an elitist symbol of academic achievement. But what if it symbolized something else? What if you got your gown when you declared a major, to mark the moment you dedicated your academic career to one specific study? What if gowns were imposed only after completing a certain number of service hours? Essentially, the gown is just a piece of clothing. The meaning with which it is endowed can bend and grow with the times. Why not change the criteria for gowning to reflect something outward? Something everyone can be openly proud of?

I don’t think this position is that radical. Sewanee grades are so inflated that the gown is somewhere between an honor and a participation trophy, while being neither. While I’d prefer the GPA requirements be increased, I think either direction would be better than the current system.

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