Breaking down the gown: discussing one of Sewanee’s most notable traditions

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Photos courtesy of Sewanee Flickr

By Helena Kilburn

Staff Writer

At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 10, a small group gathered in Gailor Auditorium to discuss the positives and negatives of one of Sewanee’s most unique traditions: the gown. The Order of Gownsmen, the Student Government Association, and the Community Engagement House organized a panel consisting of Gabby Valentine (C’17), Tariro Kandemiri (C’18), Dr. Virginia Craighill (C’ 82), Remy Rendeiro (C’18), and Dr. Woody Register to discuss their own perspectives on the gown.

Sarah Tillman Reeves (C’17), The Order of Gownsmen President, and Armonte Butler (C’ 17) led the discussion. The room was ripe for conversation, disagreement, and an overall air of intelligent questioning of tradition.

The students on this panel said they only occasionally wear their gowns, but Craighill and Register spoke on how often teachers wear them. Craighill wears hers daily because it helps her gain a sense of authority hard to find as a short female professor. Register, while respecting that it can be a useful tool for female professors, has not worn his while teaching in the past 20 years. He feels that it separates students from teachers.

When the panel was asked what the gown meant to them, there were a variety of responses. Achievement, Sewanee tradition, and community were words used to describe the gown; however, it also may lead to a worry of coming across as bookish or braggish.

Next, the two professors were asked how much has changed in regards to the gowns since they both began teaching here. In the past, some conservative teachers, who have now mostly retired, required the gowns to be worn by those students who had earned them. Possibly due to this requirement, there was an attitude of the gowns being unfashionable in the past.

After these responses, the panel discussed their thoughts on the current state of the gown. Some students voiced their appreciation for the gown and its associated privileges. Others saw it as a separation of the student body. Overall, it is viewed as a symbol of unity, but also a tradition that could draw very rigid social lines, like the line between those who can afford to have their gowns monogrammed and those who cannot, or between those who are legacies and those who are not.

Finally, the panel explored how the gown plays into equality and inclusion on campus. One panelist said that sometimes people who get their gown earlier are viewed as smarter, but that early gowning is not a fair measure of academic achievement because different classes are at different difficulty levels, and it is what you bring to class that is more important.

Register said that the idea of inclusion or exclusion in regards to the gown is a riddle because there are arguments for both sides. He encouraged students to renew and redefine the gown as time changes instead of trying to understand what it has meant in the past. Craighill brought up the question: if the OG had more of a function, would the gown matter more? Though there was not a clear answer to this question, the members of the panel seemed to respond positively to the idea of giving the organization more of a purpose.

When a student from the audience asked, “Town and Gown: the gown has become representative of the school, how could the OG break down this barrier?” Rendeiro thought maybe community outreach would be a good role for the OG. Valentine said the gown is not the problem; the problem is the tradition of seeing locals as less than equal.

Kandemiri wondered how would a minority wearing the gown be seen by locals who generally view those who are gowned as having more advantages in the world. A second question from the audience asked the panel’s thoughts on the gown as an inspiration, as Sewanee is a place for one to focus on academics. The gown may remind the townspeople that they don’t have the same opportunity to be a part of a place where the main focus is academics. Valentine replied that if more relationships are formed with locals, then less significance would be given to town and gown. The session concluded with Reeves stating that she would like to see the Order of Gownsmen do more outreach, think about things taken for granted such as the privilege of an academic environment, and evaluate traditions such as the gown.