The most stylish way to defend your neck from the icy north wind is with a college scarf.
The college scarf is a simplepiece of unisex outdoor wear: made from cloth, it is long and wide, a joy to wrap several times around the neck. Unlike knitted scarves and most cravats, the college scarfeschews dangly tassels, and its simple rectangular shape is a minimalist’s delight. Yet it still carries with it a dandyish charm, consisting of long stripes of colour; each design consisting of at least two, and sometimes up to six, different colours.
It is an item that carries much semantic meaning: it appears at scooter rallies and mod clubs in the winter, but kids still wear them at uniform-obsessed schools (usually of the fee-paying or academically selective variety), and they are sold in university gift shops along with crystal paperweights and tiepins.
Prestige – both social and academic – comes with the wearing of the college scarf, originating as it does from the dreaming spires of Oxbridge (the ancient Medieval university cities of Oxford and Cambridge). According to the company Luke Eyres, manufacturer of scarves for Ede & Ravenscroft, “To our knowledge Mr Hopkins and Mr D Eyres were the instigators of the traditional University scarf. In1938/9 a Mr Hopkins worked for Almonds in Cambridge who used to supply knitted scarves to the Universities. Due to the war, wool was in short supply so they had to find an alternative material to use. Mr Hopkins met Mr D Eyres and they came up with the idea of using woven material in replacement. This woven material was torn into strips and used for the university scarves, thus starting the beginning of the vertical striped scarf. After the war although the knitted scarves were then available most of the Universities decided to stay with the new cloth arrangement. The scarves were mainly produced for the Cambridge Universities and Boat clubs but soon became popular within all the Universities.” The scarf colours are based on each college’s crest, and are also used on the blades of each college’s rowing club oars, as can be seen at the Queens College scarf site.
At Oxbridge, undergraduates are traditionally supposed to wear their gownsto dinner, lectures and exams. This does not seem to have been the tradition at the newer British universities, the ‘redbricks’ established in the 1800’s. Here, gowns were only worn at the tradition-laden graduation ceremony. To identify themselves as students for the rest of their time at university, the college scarf was adopted. As with those from Oxbridge, former redbrick students sometimes wear their scarves when they’re middle aged, just as old men wear their proud regimental ties.
Unlike Oxbridge, the redbricks aren’t (usually) amalgamations of colleges, so at some universities student pride is displayed by the different scarves available for different departments. At my alma mater (lit. trans. ‘soul mother’!), the University of Birmingham, the Arts & Humanities Department scarf is black with blue, purple and yellow stripes, whereas the scarf for the School of Dentistry is mainly green, and there are separate scarves for Engineering and Medicine as well. The colour choice of the departmental scarves is unfathomable. It isn’t only from the university crest, as it is only red, blue and gold. It seems possible that the colours could be influenced by the different colour hoods worn at graduation with the gowns, which are different colours to show the degree. At Birmingham, the BA hood is black and blue-grey, for MBA it’s terracotta and white, for MPhil it’s black and green, and the PhD hood is maroon and mid-green (along with a fantasticHenry VIII-style hat). At Sussex, Bachelors hoods are made from fake fur – well, it is in Brighton.
At some point in the early twentieth century, the college scarf was adopted by schools. Its clean shape is perfect for the neatness required in school uniform and the colour-coding of the stripes could easily incorporate the school colours already used in the tie, blazer and hat. The development of school uniform is oddly fascinating, so I recommend the website mentioned below. It focuses on boys’ uniforms, so I still don’t know why my primary school uniform included a felt hat like an air hostess – not that I minded having to wear it, of course.
This is where problems arise: the very simplicity of the college scarf means that not many colleges, universities and schools need to adopt it before several institutions end up with identical scarves. Here is an example. The scarf for my primary school was 3 navy blue stripes and 2 white stripes (the hat mentioned above was navy blue with a navy blue band zig-zagged with a white stripe). When I reached the sixth form, I considered myself to be a mod and, though I no longer needed to wear school uniform, wore my blue and white scarf from primary school. The History teacher approached me with excitement – “Who do you know who went to UCL? I went there!” And so (thanks to my teacher’s failing eyesight – the UCL scarf colours are actually purple and light blue!), had the identification and camaraderie of the college scarf gone slightly awry. Do not, therefore, be surprised if, when trolling about town in the college scarf you bought at a jumble sale, a random stranger clasps you to their bosom, wanting to reminisce with you their fond memories of their own Rag Week and the ‘fun’ drunken nights at the student union bar.
But why was the college scarf adopted by the mod fraternity? In the 1950’s,beatniks in Britain wore the college scarf with duffle coats (another WW2 innovation, worn by the navy in the North Atlantic. The toggles, instead of buttons, were to make fastening the coat easy with cold-numbed fingers). The beatnik posing intellectualism required a hint of academic background. Perhaps the college scarf shows how, yet again, some aspect of mod evolvedfrom beatnik. But maybe, like the parka, the college scarf was adopted by mods for purely practical reasons. Scootering in Britain, you are at risk from rain, muddy puddles and chill-blains. Whereas the parka – youth cult signifier and whopping cliché – was a way of defending suits from muddy splashes, the college scarf was a neat, sharp item that would keep drafts from freezing exposed necks.
Unlike the schools and universities the college scarf was stolen from, there have never been mod colours prescribed. Yes, how amusing, anyone for red, white and blue? But then, it would be better to make use of the different stripe colours to coordinate smashingly with your outfit.
© Helen Barrell 2003 - 2011
[Published via Uppers 8 September 2003]
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