On a sunny day in late August, students introducing new undergraduates to the University of the West Indies heritage – dubbed the Pelican Experience after the UWI crest – attracted attention for the red gowns they wore open over their t-shirts and jeans.
Sixty years before, many of their peers would have been walking around in these cotton gowns which were the prescribed academic dress, assumed at matriculation each academic year.
The orientation outing for the red gowns was unusual. The university stopped asking students to wear the gowns after a literal conflagration initiated by students to demonstrate their objection – twenty years after the gowns were introduced. In part, the gowns appear to have gotten caught up in anti-colonial debate and activity that continued into the 1970s. UWI Professor Emeritus Patrick Bryan called it “part of the process of decolonization and the search for a Caribbean as opposed to a British identity”. The UWI’s original member territories had all been part of the British Empire.
After many years unused, the red gowns were re-introduced for executive members of the Guild of Students on formal occasions. Members of the UWI Singers also wear them on occasion, and they have now been used for non-degree graduates at UWI graduation ceremonies. The matriculant, the highest achieving new student who formally signs the Matriculation Register on behalf of all new students, wears the gown each year.
The UWI matriculation gowns are the tropical twins of gowns worn traditionally by students at St Andrews University in Scotland. The St Andrews gowns were wool – replacing a coat, according to Donald Hardie, a St Andrews alumnus who visited the UWI Museum in 2013. He said tradition has it that the gowns were red to help spot students frequenting houses of ill-repute!
The decision for the then University College of the West Indies to adopt an academic gown for undergraduates was taken early in the university’s history and the decision to pattern it after the gown worn by students at the ancient Scottish university was a nod to Sir James Irvine, chair of the Irvine Committee which recommended the establishment of the UCWI and Vice Chancellor of St Andrews.
Some UCWI undergrads (UCWI gave way to the independent UWI in 1962) recall wearing the gown with pride as a symbol of academic status. The UWI Museum collection includes four of the original gowns from undergraduates of the 1950s and 60s.