1. The medieval student
The medieval student at Oxford could be as young as fourteen. He – they were exclusively male – might be from a wealthy family, but not necessarily, and students were frequently short of money. He would get few holidays and his working day began early in the morning. Despite the fact that his teachers would be clergymen and his college based on monastic design, his life would be far from one of quiet contemplation. He and most of his friends would be armed; he would always carry a sharp knife for use at mealtimes, but carrying a sword was not uncommon either. In arguments with the townspeople, or with other students, outbreaks of fighting were a regular occurrence.
For what the medieval student would have worn, we have a handy reference in the form of the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where the Clerk of Oxford – a student – is precisely illustrated. He’s dressed much like a monk in a brown robe, with a cap on his head underneath the hood of robe. He’s wearing smart black shoes and carrying a pile of books, and he’s reading while riding his sadly malnourished horse (neglected so that he could spend more on books). Overall, he gives the impression of caring much more about his scholarship than his appearance, except for appearing suitably scholarly.
2. The Georgian student
The Georgian student would be more recognisable to us than the medieval student. He – still exclusively male – would have been nearer the age that we expect students to be, although there were still younger entrants than modern undergraduates. He could have been from a much greater range of social classes than his medieval predecessor, ranging from being a member of the nobility to sons of the poorer middle classes such as Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first English dictionary. The reason for this was that there was now financial assistance available to those, like Johnson, who were bright enough to get it. He went through Oxford as a Servitor, getting free lodging and meals, but working as a servant for the Fellows of the college in exchange.
The sharp class distinctions of Georgian society were visible in students’ clothes. If you were a Nobleman Commoner – a peer or the son of a peer – then you could wear a silk robe and a gold tassel on your mortarboard. Under the robe would be the typical fashion of a smart young Georgian man (think of what young men wear in adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, and you’ll have some idea). Gentleman Commoners were still allowed silk, but denied the gold tassel; Commoners would wear sleeveless gowns usually made of wool. Until 1770, Servitors like Johnson had to wear a round hat instead of a mortarboard, but then this was replaced by a square hat without the tassel. Even so, no one could be in any doubt about where they all stood in the social hierarchy.
3. The Victorian student
By late Victorian times, we have the first photographs of students in their usual clothing. Victorian students were a much more diverse group than their predecessors (though still remarkably uniform compared to the modern university), coming from all over the British Empire, from any class in society that could afford to let a child study long enough to try for a scholarship, of different religions, and, of course, including women for the first time. The rules that made every social strata clear in clothing were gone; distinctions were made in academic dress, but they alluded to whether or not you had got a scholarship, which only partly correlated with wealth.
Looking at a group of Victorian students, their clothing would not seem so unfamiliar; the men might be able to blend in today, except that they would look incredibly formal. They would wear full suits, ties and hats. The women would look stranger, with their skirts to the ankle and high collars. Their hair would be perfectly pinned up, though they might not be following the latest fashion; many of their parents would be prepared to pay for their lodging and fees, but not also to kit them out with a first-class wardrobe when they wouldn’t be looking for a husband until graduation (if at all). The first few women to arrive at Oxford University were looked upon with great suspicion; being absolutely proper in their dress was one of the few means they had of dispelling it.
4. The early 20th century student
By the time the new century rolled around, Oxford was steadily getting used to the idea of women students, not to mention male students from increasingly diverse backgrounds. Though women with a university education were still by and large expected to become teachers and remain unmarried, there were also some graduates who bucked the trend.
The key difference in photos of Victorian students and their successors twenty or thirty years later is less what they wore than how they wore it. While the first female students at Oxford couldn’t afford to have a hair out of place lest they be judged as even more un-feminine than their studying was already believed to mark them out to be, those who came later had more freedom. Their skirts remained long and their necklines high, but there’s an impression of comfort and practicality that’s missing from the earlier photos.
5. The interwar student
Both world wars saw the University of Oxford half shut down, with some buildings requisitioned for military or hospital purposes, and some colleges seeing so many of their students go off to fight that there was scarcely anyone left. Some of those who abandoned their degrees to contribute to the war effort returned once the war was over; one such was Vera Brittain, who subsequently became a writer, and who found the experience of coming back extremely difficult. She had lost almost everyone who was close to her, and the new undergraduates who had not fought seemed unbearably young and frivolous to her.
Looking at how they dressed, it’s easy to sympathise with Brittain. High necklines and long skirts were out; both male and female students adhered to all the extremes of 1920s fashion. One particularly ridiculous fashion choice was the type of trousers called Oxford bags, which were absurdly baggy with a circumference of at least 60cm at the bottom. This allegedly became the style because students were not allowed to wear knickerbockers – which were worn for sports – in lectures, so they hid them under Oxford bags. Overall, what’s noticeable about the interwar student is that suddenly fashion was a means of expressing personality. In pre-war photos, the students all look like they’re wearing a uniform. But by the interwar period, their clothing was individual and distinctive.