There is perhaps no more contemptible species to an Oxford undergraduate than an American doing a Junior Year Abroad in semi-precious dress suggesting one too many Merchant-Ivory viewings. For most native students, the City of the Dreaming Spires is first and foremost simply College (or “Uni” in the native vernacular), their first taste of independence -- all subsidized beer, kebab vans, and midnight oil -- and rightly so. But having already cut my collegiate teeth back in the States, I had come for a different education, preferring to concentrate on the grand subject rendered all around me in Cotswold stone and a mythos of youthful languor.
And then there were the clothes. As one would expect from an institution long known as an aristocratic finishing school, Oxford has a tradition of sartorial trendsetting, of which the most notorious instance is the distinctly odd trouser to which the university gave its name. Conventional wisdom has it that “Oxford bags” -- high waisted, wide-legged woolen pants with cuff circumferences in excess of 24” -- were originally worn by undergraduate hearties to conceal sporting attire (shorts and plus-fours, presumably) in more formal academic contexts. This theory would seem supported by the photo above in which the university’s 1931 varsity rowing team wears extremely crude (or perhaps Casentino cloth?) examples that obviously portend modern sweatpants.
Personally, I’ve never been able to square this narrative with Oxford bags’ competing origin story-- that they were first conceived in 1922 by the undergraduate aesthete Harold Acton as a purely stylistic conceit: billowing sails of pastel flannel in deliberately stark contrast with the trim, dark worsted trousers of the day. Acton would seem an unlikely fashion influence on Oxford’s rowers, whom he infamously taunted from his balcony with a megaphone-amplified recitation of T.S. Eliot’s hot-off-the-press The Wasteland as they made their way down to the river. Nine years is an eternity in a fashion cycle, however, and it would appear to have been all that was necessary for the Varsity Blues to almost universally adopt the signature eccentricity of their erstwhile tormentor.
Acton’s performance was exactly restaged by Evelyn Waugh in his 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, with the mesmerizingly cosmopolitan character of Anthony Blanche standing in for his obvious inspiration. No work has better captured -- perhaps even defined -- this halcyon era of Oxford’s history, with the possible exception of its 1981 television adaptation (which arguably betters the book by luxuriating in a running time longer than that required to actually read it). Waugh takes obvious and specific delight in clothes and their significance, at one point subjecting his freshman protagonist Charles Ryder to the starchy advice of his upperclassman cousin Jasper:
Dress as you do in a country house. Never wear a tweed coat and flannel trousers -- always a suit. And go to a London tailor; you get better cut and longer credit.
Although one suspects that Charles takes that last bit to heart (nobody confuses Oxford’s own Shepherd & Woodward with Anderson & Sheppard), the rest falls on deaf ears. Jasper is admonishing against precisely the casual modernity being advocated at the time by the Prince of Wales himself. 1920s Oxford was the very primordial ooze of the tweed jacket and “grayers” combination, which that generation of American visiting students would import to Princeton and thence to the rest of the world as the “collegiate” or “Ivy” look.
It’s a subtle but important distinction that Charles only adopts this relaxed, forward-looking style in his early incarnation as an earnest scholar; after falling in with Blanche and the decidedly dégagé Sebastian Flyte, he prefers suits (flannel, rather than tweed) more in keeping with a dandified and dissipated Arcadia in which “toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars.” Charles’ clothes return to sober propriety as he grows older and bitterer, and in the end are traded entirely for wartime battledress, auguring the hard facts of modernity rather than its once-hopeful spirit.
As the arc of Charles’ clothes traces the fortunes of early 20th century Britain itself, so too does Oxford’s attenuated sartorial inheritance reflect the torn sympathies of a nation both enthralled with and ashamed of its past. That strict dress code which backfired into Oxford bags has withered to the occasional ceremonial donning of subfusc -- a uniquely odd combination of dark suit and white tie worn under a medieval-ish academic robe. Those once-ubiquitous robes themselves are now relegated to formal dinner seatings at a handful of grand old colleges that do a particularly brisk tourist trade. College ties and scarves are sold everywhere and worn nowhere. In the spring Trinity term, Eights Week brings out a sprinkling of striped boating blazers over polyester cricket whites, and black-tie balls offer inflatable bouncy castles.
It’s been some years since I was there, but I imagine tweed and flannel sightings are still made, although I’m sure mostly on older dons and Americans enjoying their birthright Anglophilia.