Gowns: Ceremonial Garb or Classroom Attire?

The gown is a symbol of academia! These days, it’s mostly worn at graduation. But when the University College of the West Indies started classes in 1948, it was daily wear for students and lecturers.

The UCWI undergraduate gown was red, in the style of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, home university of Sir James Irvine who led the West Indies leg of the Great Britain Commission on Higher Education in the Colonies. The Irvine Committee had toured the region in 1944, with World War II still raging, and in 1945 recommended the establishment of a West Indian university.

For years after the establishment of the UCWI, the red gown was an integral part of the undergrad’s possessions. The rule was relaxed for science students, including the early medical students, when they were in the labs. It’s hard to know how many gowns got ruined by chemicals before the practicality of that was evident. But students in the Faculty of Arts wore gowns to lectures and all students wore their gowns to dinner on hall. All students were in residence up to the mid 60s.

Gowns could hide a multitude of sins. Listen to what 1955  graduate Mary Brathwaite (later Morgan) had to say in an article written in 1988,  in The Pelican – a magazine founded by early students and later resuscitated by the administration.

Students began rebelling against wearing gowns in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time of great political activism. In Jamaica, where the Mona campus was home of the UWI administration, several students burned their gowns in a public display in 1971. And soon after, the red gown became history – later resuscitated for ceremonial use by officials of the Guild of Students and by the University Singers.

1949 UCWI undergrad gown from Hazel Darby Richardson Aug14 2012
1949 UCWI undergrad gown from Hazel Darby Richardson Aug14 2012

UCWI graduates wore the black gown of the University of London. After UWI became an independent, degree-granting institution in 1962, graduates wore the blue gown well known up to this day.

Black graduate gown worn by Mary Brathwaite (later Morgan) in the mid-1950s.
Black graduate gown worn by Mary Brathwaite (later Morgan) in the mid-1950s.

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