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Cambridge dress

You know how every now and then you see a news story that makes you think that people take life terribly seriously in areas that you never thought really made much difference to anything?

Today, that news story is lurking somewhere in the middle of the Times under the headline, “All change for Cambridge dress code“. It’s about the fact that from October, men graduating from Cambridge will be allowed to wear skirts, and women, trousers – or, to take the words of a university spokesman, new rules “replace a reference to male dress with a gender-neutral description”.  It turns out that Oxford’s regulations on subfusc have made no reference to sex since 4th August 2012, so Cambridge are a year behind the times.

The move, apparently, comes after pressure from the student union’s LBGT+ campaign – which begs the question “what on earth is the plus bit?” – whose president claims that “this was an issue that many students had talked to us about over the years”. Really?

Don’t get me wrong: without wanting to sound like a some-of-my-best-friends-are-[insert-as-relevant]-merchant, I’m all for equality. But seriously: how is this a big issue for people? It’s not as if the dress code that existed previously – dark suits, white bow tie, academic bands – is everyday wear for anyone involved in the ceremony, whether gay, straight, not sure, or not interested: over the years, plenty of straight girls might have wanted to wear trousers, and hoards of straight men have doubtless lamented donning a dark suit in the middle of summer. In fact, I’d imagine that almost nobody has dressed up as required for graduation at Cambridge thinking, “oooh, this is just me!”.

But it’s a dress code. It’s worn for the ten minutes it takes to walk from your college to the Senate House, the 30 minutes of the ceremony, and perhaps a little bit of faff time on either side. It’s not something that people are forced into every day, with great insistence that it says a great deal about what their outlook should be on life, still less what should be their sexual preference. In short, it’s not the world’s greatest hardship. Dare I say it, it’s like covering your shoulders when you walk into a mosque: not something that suddenly insists you are part of a religion, but just adherence to a code established for reasons alien to your own mindset and world view in a way which won’t affect you a jot once you’ve done your bit, have taken it off, and can go and get on with the rest of your life.

And yet, it is talked about as if this move changes the world. Remarking that, “the speed with which this went through the university shows it was clearly an oversight,” the president tells the Times that, “I’m delighted it’s changed, and delighted to be part of a university which sees the importance of these issues and acts. I hope it will improve the lives of future students at Cambridge.”

Well, so do I. Indeed, I can say I am absolutely chuffed for all those involved if it really makes a big difference to their lives. But excuse me if I’m also totally baffled as to how or why it should, or might have been an issue worthy of mounting a campaign. It seems like the most extraordinary piece of navel-gazing, and makes me wonder what we’re now going to do for the rest of the year. Perhaps a campaign to drop the word ‘dress’ altogether? It seems to me to be remarkably easy for those easily offended to interpret in the wrong sense.

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