At Oxford, tradition is everything. But one of the prestigious British University’s oldest and most central institutions is receiving an update, courtesy of the transgender community. The old laws governing the academic clothing to be worn by students–known as subfusc (devoid of brightness)–have been amended, and starting August 4, transgender students will be permitted to wear subfusc of either sex. Traditionally, male students were required to wear a dark suit and socks, black shoes, a white bow tie and a plain white shirt and collar, and female students a dark skirt or trousers, a white blouse, black stockings and a black ribbon tied in a bow at the neck–all of course under the bulky black gowns which gives scholars and faculty at the ancient school their peculiar shape. Previously, students desiring to wear clothing of the opposite sex had to apply for special permission from university proctors, but school officials say the new rules are designed to make transgender students feel more easeful and welcome. The Oxford LGBTQ Society’s executive officer Jess Pumphrey told reporters, “In future there will be no need for transgender students to cross-dress to avoid being confronted by invigilators or disciplined during their exam.” (An invigilator, by the way, is one who oversees exams to prevent the candidates from cheating–not some nefarious ghoul out of the Harry Potter series.) In the past decade or so, many schools this side of the pond have made similar efforts to make the experience of their transgender students more commodious. Grinnell College in Iowa added gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms to its facilities in 2011, in a move both praised and jeered in the U.S. Starting next fall, Catholic University in Washington is moving in the opposite direction, and will return to gender-segregated dorm rooms in a effort to cut down on binge drinking and casual sex. (Putting all the men together will surely stop those activities.)
But tradition is by no means dead at Oxford. Transgender costume at exam time is one thing, but comportment still matters. Just this May, students were excoriated for the “slovenly practice” of taking breakfast in the dining hall–in their pajamas.