HOW TO: Dine Like A Proper Oxford Student

  • print
  • make this is a favorite!

    1 other person called this a favorite

For visitors to Oxford, catching a glimpse of a real live student in full academic dress can be one of the highlights of a trip. In fact, the chance photo with a decked-out scholar has become such a coveted prize for tourists that signs have cropped up around the colleges, bearing tongue-in-cheek messages like: PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE STUDENTS.

For students, though, a major part of the experience here is tied up in having to wear this stodgy academic dress, and in having to engage in certain activities while wearing it. Sitting for exams, chatting with dignitaries, and playing croquet on the lawn are notable examples.

Then there is Formal Hall, another centuries-old tradition. As part of their commitment to study here, students in most colleges are obliged to wear their gown while attending a weekly three-course meal with wine. Sounds like a nice perk, right? It’s great, if you know the rules. If not, you may find yourself in a host of embarrassing situations.

Step 1: Wear the right gown

There are 16 to 18 different gown styles at Oxford, which vary depending on your rank. The gown tradition at Oxford comes from the university’s history as a place of study for medieval clergy and dates back to the early 12th century when students were required to wear frocks and hoods. Various accoutrements accompanying the gowns over the centuries have included fur sashes and swords. While over 800 years later students are still required to wear gowns to significant university activities, unfortunately swords are considered passé. Styles range from the undergraduate Commoners’ gowns—waist-length, vest-like frocks, also called “arse-freezers”—to the ever-elusive Doctors’ gowns, almost ankle-length with little bits of strategically placed swag. I wear a knee-length Graduates’ gown, and despite how ridiculous I feel, I throw back my shoulders and wear it with pride. Keep in mind, though, that some colleges don’t require gowns for Formal Hall, so it’s wise to double-check what the proper attire is beforehand.

Step 2: Wear the right stuff underneath

Gowns aside, students are generally expected just to dress “smart.” When a friend of a friend realized he was about to miss his college’s formal, he threw on his gown and raced down the stairs to hall. To his dismay he realized he was still wearing his bedroom slippers. On seeing him, the Principal stood up, and announced, in that dreadful, nasally voice you’d expect from an Oxford professor: “Mr. Howard, there are limits to informality, you know.” Dressing “smart” can mean a full suit in some Oxford colleges, and jeans and a T-shirt in others. Once again, it is advisable to check before arriving.

Step 3: Arrive to Formal Hall on time

There is no “fashionably late” when it comes to Formal Hall. In some colleges, late arrivers are turned away. In others, they are required to offer formal spoken and written apologies to the College Principal. This is especially important if you are invited to dine at High Table. In colleges that uphold the tradition, High Table is actually raised above the rest of the hall and is often reserved for the Principal, esteemed Fellows, top Scholars, and illustrious visitors. Occasionally students are asked to “come up” when the Principal is feeling particularly generous, or thinks a student might share research interests with said illustrious visitors. In any case, once you arrive, quickly find your seat (sometimes they’re assigned—look for a seating chart or namecard) and begin pleasant small talk with those around you.

Step 4: Stand for grace

Thanks, once again, to the university’s religious roots and general inability to let things go, grace prefaces every meal in hall, usually in Latin. Typically a senior Fellow (professor) or Scholar (student) recites an invocation. When you think he’s finished, look up to make eye contact with those around you. Nods and slight smiles indicate the collective guess that grace is over. It is a violation of decent social order and a massive faux pas to talk about the prayer or to ask for a translation.

Step 5: Stay away from certain subjects at the dinner table

In many colleges, any discussion about the portraits on the walls is also off-limits. Most Oxford halls are full of grand portraits of once- or still-famous members of the college. Students like to refer to them as the gallery of “people who are way more successful than you’ll ever be.” It is considered extremely rude to talk about the portraits at the table. I haven’t figured out why. Ask any Oxford student, and they’ll likely just shrug and say, “You just don’t mention them.”

Step 6: Mind your manners

The meals at formal hall proceed as any meal might. Wait until everyone at your table has gotten fresh bread and soup before digging in. The same goes for the entrée—usually a meat and starch or vegetarian option—and “pudding” (i.e. dessert). If you’re lucky enough to sit at High Table, you may enjoy fresh-killed game or fowl from the local forests, hundred-year-old Bordeaux wine, and (it is rumored in one college) chocolates served out of a silver-cast human skull. As far as table etiquette goes, you may be overwhelmed by the plethora of cutlery before you at the table. Take a deep breath, and work from the outside in. If you’re up for it, try eating your soup British style. Tip your bowl and scoop away from you. It’s harder than it looks!

Step 7: Watch out for pennies

Although most colleges have rules forbidding drinking games at Formal Hall, they are categorically ignored in all of them. Fellows tend to overlook the students’ frivolities, unless they become too boisterous or “antisocial” to remain at table. Pennying, for example, is as rich a tradition in Oxford as rowing or doffing one’s cap. The basic idea is this: At any point during dinner when you’re holding or touching your wineglass, anyone else may drop a penny into your drink. If the attempt is successful, you have to down what’s left in the glass as quickly as you can. Keep the penny, and look for the next victim. Just remember that no one is EVER allowed to penny Stephen Hawking on his occasional visits from The Other Place (i.e. Cambridge).

Step 8: Don’t spill the wine

A variation on pennying, primarily in effect at Oriel College, is shoeing. If any wine spills as a result of an unsuccessful pennying attempt, or general clumsiness, the men’s crew team captain (it is assumed that everyone will know who this is) must remove his shoe. The shoe is then passed under the table to the offender, who is obliged to pour the remains of the unpennied wine into the shoe and subsequently drink it. A good rule of thumb here is, “Penny, but penny with care.”

Step 9: Take off your gown before heading into town

The relationship between students and townspeople in Oxford is probably the worst of any university city anywhere. Residents resent students for their elitism, sense of entitlement, and generally obnoxious behavior. Some pubs are de facto off limits to students, as several have been severely beaten by residents. Some of my friends were egged by townspeople on their way to matriculation, and there’s a rumor in my college that a mean-spirited townie tossed paint on a student a couple years back as she walked to formal hall. This doesn’t mean you should remain cloistered on campus, but I would refrain from parading around town in your academic dress.

With this in mind, you should be able to hold your own in any of Oxford’s Formal Halls. Keep your head up and embrace the absurdity!


Posted on 8/17/2010 by

Ben Scheelk

Ben Scheelk

Hilarious "How To" Marshall...I definitely love the taboo forbidding pennying Stephen Hawking--I can see how that could be an awkward situation! I have an uncle who went to Oxford for a year. He never mentioned anything about formal meals, but then again, I don't know much about him at all. Maybe this is the perfect ice-breaker for me to get to know my uncle a little better. Thanks for the great laugh...makes me want skip on over the pond and see for myself! p.s. It's clear after reading a few of Adam Smith's works (Theory of Moral Sentiments, Lectures on Jurisprudence, Wealth of Nations) that he wasn't too impressed with Oxford...he lamented that the professors had "given up altogether even the pretense of teaching." Try that one out for a little dinner conversation! I wonder if he's one of the portraits in the Formal Hall even though he dropped out!

Posted on 8/31/2010 by

Marshall Worsham

Marshall Worsham

I'm glad you enjoyed reading, Ben. I have seen Adam Smith's portrait somewhere around, but unfortunately I can't remember where. You should definitely visit Oxford if you ever get the chance; it's quite a place.

Post a Comment

Related Story

Where To Find Real Beer (Hint: Not At A Frat Party)

2 Feb 2009

I clearly remember my first beer experience: I was a freshman, and after listening to the orientation guide’s solemn assertions ... read more

Related Photos

Or login with Facebook:

Forgot your password? We can help you change it! Click Here

Not registered? Click here to create an account.