Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Real Oxford Manner: Rambling Writing on Oxbridge Fashion

Copyright: Steve Bell
“And you found he was an Oxford man,” said Jordan helpfully.
“An Oxford man!” He was incredulous. “Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.”
-F. Scott, Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

All you need to know about Oxford is that you start and end at the gift shop. Buying and returning your Harry Potter gown, amongst Harry Potter movie merchandise, the I  Oxford hoodies for the tourists, the ‘born to go to Oxford’ baby bibs for the pushy parents. And it’s one week later and I’m photo shopping out the stupid out of my face and the creases from my shirt.

Now, it’s two weeks later, the weekend, time flies, and I’m sat in the dark, eating popcorn, watching sons of famous actors pretend to be Oxford students. The film is called ‘The Riot Club’. I think of a girl in my halls, Scottish, freaked out in the first week of term, “It’s like a snow globe”, she whispers theatrically, “you can’t leave, and people won’t stop taking pictures of you.” And on the morning of graduation, tourists sat on the floor to watch us go past, they take photos. I feel famous. She feels uncomfortable. Kanye wants North to go to Oxford. I realize that celebrities want to be Oxford students and Oxford students want to be celebrities. Go figure.

I was excited to go to Oxford. I even made a mood board on Pinterest. It made me feel prepared. I read articles, one by Tanya Gold, mocking the enthusiasm of the state school students, the poor kids, comprehensive school alumnis, the ones who work hard. I’m pretty sure she is referring to me. Tanya Gold went to private school, I read an extract. She tries to be funny, but comes off as cruel:

“The second tribe were the Wannabes - the state-school kids who tried, pitifully, to buy into the Brideshead fantasy. They mooched around as parodies of 1930s Oxford students. The boys wore tweed suits and spectacles and the girls wore Laura Ashley and buns. They spent all their time in the library and dining in college wearing funny black gowns, inexplicably called subfusc, a term they adored. They drank sherry and affected Celia Johnson voices. Although they usually did very well academically they seemed terribly unhappy - at Waugh with themselves. If they got 2:1s they considered suicide and, of the ones I am still in touch with, their careers have vanished into dust. They tried to plug themselves into an old boy network that didn't want them. The fantasy broke them. If you lose yourself to a fantasy at 19, it takes a long time to find yourself again.”

Tanya Gold writes for the Guardian. Got a 2:2. Writes columns about poor kids who tried harder than her. Go figure.  “I’m sick to death of poor people”, say the actors in the Riot Club movie. I sympathise. I’m sick of me too. But even if I am on the losing end of the ‘who wore it better ‘pages, I’d rather go branded than labelless. Because Oxford is a label, and much like the J W Anderson bat jumper didn’t turn me into Alexa Chung, a piece of paper isn’t going to turn me into a Nobel prize winner. (Though I can pretend it does right?) I was always a sucker for those ‘get the look’ spreads, a celebrity may own the same jumper as me, but that does not change the fact that I am short and ugly.

There’s a bit in the Alan Bennet play the History Boys, that goes like this:

Oxford and Cambridge! What for?” says the state school teacher named Hector.  

“Old, sir. Tried and tested.” replies the Oxbridge candidates.

“No!” goes Hector, “It's because other boys want to go there. It's the hot ticket, standing room only.” 

I watched that play in a theatre at Oxford. The characters weren’t played by movie stars like in the film though. They were other Oxford students. Originality is not my strong point, but who has time for taste of their own when we have league tables and hot or not fashion charts?

The Riot Club, dir: Lone Scherfig, 2014, Photograph: Blueprint Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

The Bullingdon Club, class of 1987, featuring London Mayor Boris Johnson and British Prime Minister, David Cameron. The pair’s eventful time as members merited its own 2009 televised docu-drama, titled when ‘Dave met Boris’). Image copyright of Gillman and Soame.

It’s now 20 minutes into ‘The Riot Club’ movie, and it’s playing out like a music video, Wild Boys by Duran Duran plays as they trash the new members room. One of the actors sits in a Louis Vuitton suitcase. I appreciate this touch. “Debauchery raised to an art” is a direct quote. The film itself is the high street knock off of the play ‘Posh’. Itself a rip off of the Oxford drinking and dining society The Bullingdon Society. Their uniforms cost. They even have their own colour scheme: sky blue and ivory. Their tailcoats are special made, Ede and Ravenscroft. Monogrammed buttons. Lapels (silk). I’d probably have joined if they’d asked me. Their group photos read like editorials, famous people in a clothing spread. Vogue and Glamour both featured The Riot Club heavily in their autumn spreads. “It’s not sweat on their palms, it’s envy”, is a quote from the movie (you know, the peasants are revolting and what not). “They all the look the same” is another. They being the Oxford elite of course. The same in a good way I assume, with their matching outfits (“it’s a vintage night” lies one boy to a suspicious landlord) and great bone structure.

Vogue UK, August 2014

Oxford is for nerds though. As much as I could pull a postmodern and start comparing aristocracy oil painting to a filter heavy selfies, latin to bad text speak, it’s not going to happen. Oxford is for boys that wear ‘carpe that fucking diem’ t-shirts, ‘I am the after party’ t-shirts. Bops are like school discos. The theme for the summer one was ‘Communism’. I went as a McCarthyite. The balls, colonial children’s birthday parties. (Complete with coconut shy and magician). Developing countries are popular themes. Oxford is for geeks. Oxford was never cool. “Don’t you realise they’re laughing at you?” says one Riot Club member to another. He explodes.

A nickname for Oxford is the Dreaming Spires, but I don’t need dreams when an alumni list (with embedded wiki links) is available online. Oxford was always more gowns and big buildings, than radical discourse and critical practice. I mean that intellectual stuff is cool, but you can’t put in on the cover of a prospectus (the cover of Vogue) can you? Because Oxford is needy. It needs to be seen, it needs attention, needs the tourists, needs the movie adaptations, the fashion spreads. It may be old but it is immature. Money and indigestion: “the Oxford manner” as James Joyce once said.

I iron my gown and put it next to my J.W. Anderson. The Oxford manner indeed. 

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