Monday, October 19, 2015

Master's Monday: "Sub Fusc" and Individuality

Well, folks, as of Saturday, 17th October, I am an official student member of the University of Oxford. Amidst a chaotic blur of black-and-white-clad figures rushing to or from the Sheldonian Theatre and finally settling into the horseshoe of backless wooden benches that surround a silent organ of magnificent proportions, I and hundreds of other freshers were added to the ever-growing list of Oxford students with a few Latin phrases from the Vice-Chancellor. It was all rather rushed, with a few moments of almost amusing solemnity in the middle.
For many of us, I think the strangest most interesting part of the experience was our attire—unhelpfully referred to as “sub fusc,” from a Latin phrase meaning “somewhat dark brown.” As you can see from my photos, in practice this results in a rather precisely-defined combination of whites and blacks, with some variation allowed in terms of hats, bow ties, suit jackets, etc. As it turned out, I was the only person I saw that day who opted out of the more popular mortar-board and went for the traditionally-women’s “soft cap” instead. Way to be accidentally unique, I guess.

Anyway, what interests me most about "sub fusc" is that all students are required to wear it not only for special ceremonies like matriculation and graduation, but also for all university exams. What’s more, this is not just an antiquated tradition imposed upon the students by a grumpy group of administrators. Apparently, a vote was taken last year in which 85% of students showed their support for continuing the tradition. I find this fascinating.

At least from my first-time experience, the tradition of sub fusc seems to run directly opposite to most of fashion’s most cherished mantras, especially “express yourself” and “comfort first.” We were all a bit stiff in our bows and gowns on Saturday and chilled to the bone by the end of it. Not exactly anyone’s “comfort zone.” And as you can see from the first picture, we all kind-of blended together into one vintage “sea” of black and white. Not much uniqueness going on there (okay, except for my hat, I guess, but that doesn’t really count).

So why has sub fusc remained popular among at least 85% of students? I have a few theories of my own, but the Vice-Chancellor also suggested one that I think makes a lot of sense. Specifically in relation to taking exams, he reminded us of the absolute vigor and alertness we would need to do well at Oxford—qualities to which rolling out of bed and stumbling to the Examination Schools in T-shirts and sweats are not exactly conducive. “Dressing up” for exams reflects the inherent connectedness between our bodies and minds and, to steal a phrase from the world of sports, allows us to approach the event with our best “game face.”

In addition to this reason, however, I’ve been thinking about whether there is something significant in the very awkwardness that we all felt as we dressed up for the day, paraded down to the Sheldonian, and sat on our benches listening to ourselves “be matriculated” in a language most of us couldn’t understand. Perhaps the awkwardness doesn’t come so much from the things themselves as from our modern perspectives on formality and solemnity. Is it possible that we’ve lost something valuable in our preoccupation with comfort, informality, and “being genuinely ourselves”? I think it’s worth considering.

I think most would agree that at least some things (or some people) are worth dressing up for. Worth feeling a little silly, a little stiff, a little chilled. Perhaps it is worthwhile to reject our first thoughts of “this is awkward” and “what’s the big deal?” and to replace them instead with a larger perspective, remembering the importance of things like gratitude, respect, and community.

Even in daily life, I want to ask myself how I can use my attire to serve more important goals than merely my own comfort or “self-expression.” In a slightly different (but related) context, C. S. Lewis reminds us that as long as we are looking down, we cannot see what is above us. As long as we are focused on our own appearance, on how silly or stiff or “awkward” this outfit may appear to others, we bar ourselves from a vision of the great calling in which we are participating, of the community to which we have been welcomed, of the legacy left by those who made this community possible in the first place, and of the great Creator of Heaven and Earth who has given us this time and place in order to pursue His will and leave a lasting impact on those who will follow. Lord, help me to look up.