On Friday, September 17, Sewanee parents congregated on the Domain for Parents’ Weekend. Among the festivities was the gowning of the newest members of the Order of the Gown, a celebration of the academic excellence exhibited by Sewanee students.
At 4:30, students, parents, and professors gathered on the quad and watched a steady stream of students and faculty enter All Saints’ Chapel. Professors walked into the chapel wearing robes of various colors and patterns earned through their own studies while gowned students and their soon-to-be-gowned counterparts took their seats.
When the group was situated, a series of prayers and hymnals began, followed by “the conferring of the honorary degrees”. The recipient of the degree, Dr. JoAnn Falleta, is a celebrated composer who has spent several of her summers at Sewanee instructing young musicians.
In her address, Falleta challenged the idea of a preoccupation with “success.” Rather, she charged students to seek fulfillment and mastery through a pursuit of personal “excellence”. Then, it was time for the new members of the Order to be gowned. Gownees and gowners gathered in the quad with their families, and after a rendition of the Sewanee alma mater, inductees were allowed to don their gowns.
The Order of the Gown has been an influential organization on Sewanee’s campus for over a century. According to the University archives, the tradition of students and faculty donning gowns for academic endeavors is 150 years old. The Order itself was established 148 years ago by Chaplain William Porcher Dubose as the Order of the Gownsmen.
The purpose of the Order, at the time, was to serve as an organization of academic achievement and to function as a form of student government, which it did until the 60s when the Student Government Association (SGA) was formed.
Since then, the Order of the Gown has worked in conjunction with the SGA to foster student representation for the administration. . It stands as a group that venerates scholarly achievement and mystifies visiting prospective students and their parents.
One of Sewanee’s most unique organizations, the ubiquity of the Order around campus is difficult to understate. However, the tradition is not an original product of Sewanee’s history but derived from the history of academia. The practice of academic robe wearing is as old as the practice of university education.
The custom was adopted by academics in the 12th and 13th centuries as the first European universities were being founded. The scholars wore attire resembling clerical robes displaying colors which represented their respective disciplines. The tradition stuck, and can still be seen today in the caps and gowns of high school graduation ceremonies and the halls and classrooms of Sewanee.
This tradition has become an encouragement to students that their efforts in the classroom will not go unnoticed. Meg Butler (C’24), who was gowned on Friday, stated that the opportunity to be inducted into Order was “absolutely” a factor that spurred her to her success during the 2020-2021 school year.
In addition to being an aspiration, the Order is a tool for students. One of the things Butler is most looking forward to regarding the Order of the Gown is its voice on campus: “I’m excited to have an organization in which I can voice my opinion on any issue on campus.”
The Order is a cohesive force at Sewanee, partly because of the inclusion of all students. Rachel Alverez (C’22) at Sewanee says she “Appreciate[s] that it’s something, that by the time you graduate, it’s the one consistent thing that every person at Sewanee is a part of.”
The significance of the Order is evident to parents as well. Meg Butler’s mother, Charlotte Butler, who despite not being aware of the Order of the Gown until her daughter became eligible for induction described the organization as being “meaningful” to students. The Order of the Gown is simultaneously one of the most important student assets on campus because it celebrates learning and the pursuit of knowledge and brings students together.