Is Cambridge formal fashion inaccessible?


“Wearing one of my mum’s dresses!”Camila Borges Dantas with permission for Varsity

Before arriving at Cambridge, I had a vague idea of the university and its conventions. It’s almost impossible not to hear the word “Cambridge” and immediately think of dark academia, old buildings, stressed-out students and fancy events to make up for it all. Yet, one thought kept flickering through my head in the months before I was due to start my course: with all of these events, far fancier than the ones I was used to, what on earth was I supposed to wear?

It might sound like an insignificant thing to be worrying about, but it kept springing to mind. I didn’t (and still don’t) have a large collection of formal clothing – a couple of simple dresses is really it – and I wondered if I would feel less inclined to attend these events when I felt like I would always be under-dressed or just somehow clearly out of place.

“These occasions were more stressful than exciting”

When I got here, I asked a few of my friends how they felt about formal culture. Those who were new to Cambridge, like me, expressed somewhat similar anxieties, as fleeting as they might be. They all talked about feeling like these occasions were more stressful than exciting; casual to those used to this place but strange and new for the rest of us.

“Simple black dress for the first formal!”Arya Sharma with permission for Varsity

Aanchal Kapur is a fellow postgrad and an international student. She told me about feeling excluded at her first formal event because she could not contribute to conversations revolving around Cambridge-specific topics.“To be specific, the fellow sitting at the head of the table kept talking about King’s College, Trinity College, and their specific traditions, none of which I was familiar with”. This experience, she explained, created a sense that there was “insider knowledge”, and generated feelings of inadequacy and isolation. On this note, she wondered about the importance of inclusivity and accessibility within the wider university community.

“Can dressing for formals become more fun and relaxing over time?”

“The culture of elite events can exude prestige and tradition, attracting those who appreciate the university’s rich history and exclusivity. However, these events can also be intimidating for newcomers who lack ‘Cambridge knowledge’ – an understanding of the university’s customs and traditions”. I understand where she is coming from. There is certainly a Cambridge bubble that can feel a little exclusionary when you first get here, especially if you’re coming from another uni and/or another country. It takes some getting used to.

But what happens when you do get used to it? Can dressing for formals become more fun and relaxing over time? In this light, I wanted to get a different perspective from someone used to the Cambridge scene.

Camila Borges Dantas is now in her fourth year at Cambridge. She told me that, having gotten used to formals over the years, they don’t feel so formal after all!

Left: formal with family, right: formal with friendsCamila Borges Dantas with permission for Varsity

“Being present there with friends and enjoying each other’s company – having that as a focus makes going to formals easier and less daunting”, she comments.

“For me, I don’t want to take them for granted. I don’t go too often and when I do go, I am always very conscious of not taking this as the norm. Not in a negative or nervous way, but in the sense of being grateful that I can go to these impossibly decadent events. I like to have an almost pinching-myself mentality!”

Camila has an uplifting view, encouraging us to relish in the novelty of formals while also seeing them as just another social occasion. So go with your friends and savour the moment (and the food)! Formals can be both a very special and a very regular part of Cambridge life. Camila also mentioned that in terms of fashion, she would often wear vintage or second-hand outfits. “Wearing my mum’s dresses is really comforting and gives me a nice feeling of sentimentality, like my mum is present in some way! I love having that connection through clothes”, she adds.

“Wearing another one of my mum’s dresses!”Camila Borges Dantas with permission for Varsity

So, perhaps the anxiety around what to wear can be lessened by dressing in a way that feels comfortable. You can find more accessible and affordable clothes by shopping vintage or finding second-hand pieces. Plus, most colleges have fairly relaxed formal dress codes, so there’s really nothing to worry about in terms of feeling out of place. Sure, sometimes the bubble might get you down, particularly when it rests on a somewhat elevated ideal of Cambridge, but you can create familiarity by surrounding yourself with people you know you’re going to enjoy your evening with. You don’t need to fit the scene, it’s yours to do with what you wish.


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