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A guide to sub fusc

Written by Eleanor Sanger, posted on Thursday, October 5, 2017

Sub fusc, or academic dress, is one of those Oxford quirks that it can take a while to get your head around before you start at Oxford. For one thing, you first need to work out what it actually is, and then you need to decide which clothes you're going to wear for it, and find out when you need to wear it. It can all get a bit confusing. So here’s a handy guide to sub fusc that should hopefully see you through your first few weeks and beyond…

What is it for?

Firstly, what is sub fusc? It’s from the Latin sub fuscus meaning ‘dark brown’, but actually most of it is black, so it’s best not to take that at face value. It’s your ‘academic dress’, meaning that it’s worn for important occasions like your Matriculation ceremony, your degree ceremony, and your end of year exams. You'll also wear your gown for certain meals, like formal hall, although this does vary between colleges.

What should I wear?

A group of students in Sub Fusc crossing Tom QuadThere are rules regarding the items of clothing you have to wear for sub fusc, but within that you can wear what you want, regardless of gender.

  1. One of:
    1. Dark suit with dark socks, or
    2. Dark skirt with black tights or stockings, or
    3. Dark trousers with dark socks
  2. Dark coat if required, worn beneath the gown
  3. Black shoes
  4. Plain white collared shirt or blouse
  5. White bow tie, black bow tie, black full-length tie, or black ribbon


  1. The appropriate academic gown
  2. Mortar board or soft cap

In practice, students who identify as male often wear black suits with a white shirt and white bow tie, and students who identify as female often wear a black skirt or trousers, with a white shirt and black ribbon, but what you wear is entirely up to you!

In terms of gowns – unless you’re an organ or choral scholar, you’ll start off with a commoners gown. This is worn by students taking undergraduate or undergraduate master’s degrees. It doesn’t have sleeves, and falls to around your hip.

If you are an organ or choral scholar, or you get a distinction in Prelims at the end of your first year, you are entitled to wear a Scholars gown. This is more your traditional kind of academic gown, and it’s knee length with short sleeves.

Graduate students wear the advanced students gown, also known as the Graduate gown, which looks similar to the commoners gown except it’s knee length.

You can find out more about the types of gown here.

When do I wear it?

You’ll first wear sub fusc for your matriculation ceremony, at the end of first week in your first Michaelmas Term. You'll wear full sub fusc, including your gown, and you’ll need to carry your mortar board.

You’ll probably next wear it for your Prelims exams, generally taken at the end of your first year (except for Classics, where you have 'Mods' during your second year) – you don’t have to wear it for collections or other college exams – and for Finals exams held at the end of years after that. You’ll also have to wear it for other exams such as music recitals, oral exams, presentations and vivas – but you have to wear a commoners gown for these even if you’re a scholar. You’re allowed to remove things like your gown and tie during exams themselves, but for going in and out you must be in full sub fusc or you won’t be allowed to take the exam.

The last time you’ll wear it will be for your degree ceremony where, again, you must be in full sub fusc. In most cases you change your academic gown and hood during the ceremony itself – so when you’re graduating with your Bachelor's or an Undergraduate Masters, you’ll start off just wearing your BA gown, and the hood will be added later as part of the ceremony – but you’ll be told all of this by college before the ceremony, so don’t panic! You can carry your mortar board inside but wear it outside – by which point you’ll definitely want to throw it in the air after having to carry it around to exams for the past 3 years.

Students in sub fusc on their way to the Matriculation photographWhere do I get it from?

There are several shops in Oxford where you can buy sub fusc, and some of them offer deals, so it’s worth checking out a few websites to see which has the best offer.

In some cases they’ll only offer you the gown and mortar board, and perhaps the tie or ribbon, whereas in others they might also offer discounted shirts, suits and skirts as well. But there aren’t really any regulations about the rest of your sub fusc other than the colour, so you’re free to choose whatever shirts, trousers, skirts and shoes you like as long as they comply with regulations.

Here are some of the main shops in Oxford that sell sub fusc, or parts of sub fusc:

Shepherd and Woodward

Ede and Ravenscroft

Walters of Oxford

The Varsity Shop

There isn’t one in particular that does ‘official’ sub fusc, so it’s up to you which shop you choose.

You may also find that other students are selling off their commoners or scholars gowns when they no longer need them, so keep an eye out for this as it can be a cheaper way of doing it – just make sure you get the right size!

And finally - how do I tie the ribbon?

Truth is, no one really knows, and there’s no hard and fast rule about what it should look like, so go with whatever you prefer! Some people tie it like a tie, particularly if wearing a buttoned-up shirt, or make it into a bow, whereas if your shirt has a lower neck you can just tie the ribbon in a fairly loose double knot at around the position where the buttons start. But it’s totally up to you, so try a few things out and see what works best!


There’s more info about sub fusc on the University’s website – and if you need more information once you’ve got here, you can always ask other students for tips!