Gown wars: Disruption, dragons and academic dress

Much excitement at a recent edition of the evergreen BBC series Dragons’ Den (can you believe it is now on series 17?) which, in addition to featuring a pair of porridge entrepreneurs inviting the Dragons to a teddy bears’ picnic, had a pitch for support from two people who run Churchill Gowns, a company aiming to disrupt the rather staid and serene world of academic dress and in particular the provision of gowns to students for graduation.

You can catch the programme on i-player here until the middle of September (watch from about half an hour in) but if you missed it then it’s not giving too much away to say that one of the Dragons does indeed make an investment in the company (to retain an element of excitement I won’t say which one or what the percentage of equity demanded was).

There has been quite a lot of fuss recently about gowns and the cost of purchase or hire. To be honest I’ve never known anyone who has actually bought a gown – even a wedding dress you might get a second shot at wearing but you are only going to find yourself gowning up again if you are lucky enough to secure a key administrative or academic role at a university and have to join the platform party or if you get invited to one of those kinds of parties (NB, the latter has never happened to me).

Gown hire though is not cheap and wearing a gown is a core requirement – indeed, beyond passing your exams and returning your library books, just about the only requirement – for attending graduation and given the compulsion here it is understandable that at some points graduands will raise a question or two about the cost of all that bizarre costumery and wonder why they’ve never heard of Messrs Ede & Ravenscroft before.

Let’s address the latter question then – just who are E&R? They claim to be the oldest firm of tailors in the world, having been established in Aldwych in 1689 and to have been tailors and robemakers for twelve coronations:

For 320 years Ede & Ravenscroft has upheld its reputation as tailors of distinction. Meticulous craftsmanship has rewarded the company with commissions from royalty to the judiciary. Ede & Ravenscroft enjoys the privilege of being the tailors and robe makers of choice for twelve coronations. We provide ceremonial robes for all occasions, dress the judiciary (including providing handmade wigs) and ensure that graduates from all over the world look their best at graduation ceremonies. Personal clientele entrust Ede & Ravenscroft to deliver tailoring that’s fashionably stylish whilst remaining elegantly enduring.

They know their business then do those Ede & Ravenscroft people. But this near monopoly on the university gown market has really started to cause concern as this recent piece in the Times noted:

Universities face challenges from students who say they have to pay over the odds for graduation robes because of exclusive deals with Ede & Ravenscroft, a tailor dating back to 1689 that supplies ceremonial dress robes for the Queen.
More than two-thirds of 135 universities and colleges surveyed by The Sunday Times say on their websites that students should obtain graduation dress from Ede & Ravenscroft. It charges £45 to hire a gown for a day and £135-£175 to buy one. Some universities get commission.

Students who seek cheaper options are told that they will not be admitted to their own graduations “in incorrect dress”. Churchill, which started in Australia, charges £34 to hire a gown and £72 to buy one. Other suppliers hire for as little as £25.

I’m not sure there are many universities which require a specific supplier but many will certainly have an agreement with E&R or, possibly, another supplier to ensure that students have the right gowns, hoods and hats for their ceremony. But the correct rig out is seen by universities as important and the investment required by suppliers to ensure there are enough of the right bits of dress for every graduand is substantial. It’s therefore not an easy market to break in to. But this is exactly what Churchill Gowns, supported by a dragon, is trying to do.

This is what they say about themselves:

Churchill Gowns have supplied academic dress to students at over 30 universities in the UK and over 100 universities in Australia. In addition we work directly with a number of institutions, including designing and manufacturing the graduation hoods for the New College of the Humanities in London, supplying gowns to the Graduate Union at the University of Cambridge and supplying graduation services to a number of major universities in Australia. We are also members of the Cambridge Social Ventures programme at the University of Cambridge.


The company’s commitment to gowns and hoods is evident from its enthusiastic endorsement of the Burgon Society, the organisation for academic dress wonks, who we’ve talked about here before :

As corporate members of the Burgon Society Churchill Gowns enjoy regular access to studies and communications about academic dress. We also attend various events throughout the year hosted by the society. This enables us to constantly develop our own knowledge about the history, traditions and provenance of academic dress. Having access on occasion to the Burgon Society’s significant collection of gowns, hoods and caps, also provides us with opportunities to examine different designs and rare examples of academic dress.

The Churchill pair in their pitch also talked about graduation memorabilia as offering big opportunities for money-making beyond gowns and mortar boards. There is certainly plenty of scope for this kind of thing – not just teddy bears and key rings – but I’m not sure that offering portraits of graduates is the way forward though:

 

Of course, everyone is excited about disruption in any sector, and the denizens of the dragons’ den more than most and it is perhaps therefore unsurprising that one of them was keen enough to invest. It remains to be seen what impact Churchill Gowns and their new investor will have on this ancient market. But when you combine their disruptive ambitions with changing student attitudes to graduation then something is likely to change.

 

4 responses to “Gown wars: Disruption, dragons and academic dress

  1. A helpful note arrives from my colleague Dr John Horton who observes it is also possible to see this and other Dragons’ Den episodes for a longer period on “Box of Broadcasts – Learning on Screen”:

    https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand

    (Presumably a good number of Wonkhe readers have access to this.) I think programmes, once made available here, last indefinitely. In practice (and once you’re logged in), the simplest way to find it is probably to search for:

    Dragons’ Den porridge

    Thank you John!

  2. All the staff at my university are encouraged to help out at graduation as ushers and banner bearers, and the university hires the necessary academic dress for everyone.

    And yes, we use E&R 🙂

  3. My Ulster PhD Robes (1972) which I still wear on ceremonial occasions at SEEU were made by now closed Frances Curley of Belfast, and I was interested to see that Ulster itself maintains a stock of robes in collaboration with Marston Robing. I was happy to see that no charge is made. Maybe that is a lesson for other universities.

  4. I was a First in Family, low-earning family background, working-two-part-time-jobs-to-survive university student – the cost of hiring a gown for a day almost stopped me going to my graduation (I ended up borrowing the money from a friend). Might be time for something to change, and it’s nice to see discussion about it on here.

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