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UK university rewrites centuries-old dress rules for trans students

UK university rewrites centuries-old dress rules for trans students

St Catharine’s College, Cambridge has scrapped its gendered dress code for formal dinners, in a first for the prestigious university.

The campaign was spearheaded by 25-year-old Charlie Northrop, Formal Hall officer for the college’s MCR (graduate community). She also identifies as a trans woman.

Northrop began transitioning this year, and was tasked by the college Dean to reevaluate St Catharine’s (often called ‘Catz’) formal dress code.

She told GSN: ‘I researched and compiled a list of all college dress codes and found that, although Catz leans towards the stricter side with its dress code, no college has an explicitly gender neutral wording.

‘I felt that adding a clause promising not to discriminate based on gender identity or expression was key: I had felt distressed about coming in a dress to formal. I actually spent a month after coming out in all other walks of life wearing a suit to formal.’

Northrop said the process of reevaluating the dress code started last Fall, and took this long to complete, largely due to the complex process of deciding what defines male and female formal dress, and hammering out a rock-solid wording.

The final wording decided on was: ‘Members and their guests must be dressed in suitably smart dress. "Smart dress" is defined without reference to considerations of gender identity or expression. This means a suit (or trousers and jacket), a shirt with a collar, a tie, and shoes (not trainers or sandals), or equivalently formal dress.’

‘This makes Catz formals a place to express yourself in a new spectrum of ways,’ Northrop said in an email to the student body.

‘Men can wear dresses, women can wear suits, and non-binary people are free to define the outfits that feel most appropriate to them in a formal setting.’

She added that other Cambridge colleges have now been inspired to change their own dress codes. ‘Students have written to me to ask about how to adopt similar wordings in their own dress codes.

‘I even heard from a student at Clare College, to whom I pointed out that Clare has no dress code I could find. Still, perhaps introducing a dress code could even do a college good if it had none before.

‘Seeing those words is especially reassuring because it makes a definite statement that the college is a tolerant place – it’s a nice thing to see when coming to a new community. I think that will do a lot of good in the long run, both for Catz and the rest of the Cambridge colleges.’

Eli Bond, president of the St Catharine’s college JCR (undergraduate committee), told GSN: ‘St Catharine’s prides itself on being a friendly, progressive college.

‘A big part of that is being willing to amend, and at times dispense with, elements of the Cambridge tradition that fail to promote inclusivity for all our members. Removing the gendered dress code is one change within a broader aim to make our college and the university as a whole a safe and welcoming space for LGBTI students.’

She added: ‘Feedback from both the fellowship and the student body on the change has been really positive and we have plans to hold the first Trans awareness Formal Hall in the Michaelmas term next year.’

And Charlie tweeted: ‘Even changing the world in a small way feels extraordinary – Congrats, @Catz_Cambridge’.