Saturday was a red-letter day for the college, or more accurately, a celebration in black and white: Somerville’s first-year students, both undergraduate and graduate, dressed up in sub-fusc and paraded through the streets of Oxford to matriculate in the Old Examination Schools on High Street. Before the ceremony itself, they were all marshalled in the main quad, lined up on a hustings and organised by the combined efforts of two members of the Academic Office and two gentlemen from Ede and Ravenscroft, the firm more generally known as a supplier of academic apparel. It takes a special combination of jollity and firmness to arrange over one hundred and thirty individuals neatly, starting in name order and then in order of height, helping to tie intractable bow-ties and pronouncing on the acceptability or otherwise of various female interpretations of sub-fusc. Finally we were all arranged, with myself the only one in the Somerville colours of black and red, since I wasn’t marching to the ceremony, but only there to sit in the middle of the front row squeezed between two of the tallest students, and smile.
Smiling wasn’t difficult, because this is an exciting and affirming day, when our newest students are all admitted to formal membership of the University. Quite why Oxford insists on sub-fusc for matriculation and exams: black suits or skirts, ties (black for women, white for men), gowns and mortar-boards, I am not at all sure. The glossary on the University’s web site merely describes the necessary gear and gives the Latin derivation subfuscus, which means just dark, or dark brown. I have known of a student or two in years past who decamped to Cambridge partly on the grounds that there one could take exams in party clothes, including a hat with a feather. But there is something about a shared rite of passage of this kind; and dressing in sub fusc imparts a unique sense of academic occasion.
The weekend was a time of settling in for me personally, as Frank and I continued our labours to unpack all our family possessions, finally delivered from across the Atlantic, in Radcliffe House, the Principal’s residence at Somerville. The move began the previous weekend, and there are yet uncounted boxes of books and papers waiting to be squeezed on to shelves. But now we are beginning to feel settled, and the college’s labours to renovate the house are gratefully appreciated every time we place a book on the new shelves or crockery in the new kitchen. What’s needed now is a few good parties, (sub fusc not required).