Now, a mere century and a half since women were first admitted to Cambridge, they will finally be allowed to cover their legs at formal dinners, at one college at least.
St Catharine’s College, established in 1473, has always insisted on male students to wear a jacket and tie and smart trousers with an academic gown, while women, who were first admitted to the college in 1979, have had to wear a skirt or a dress.
Centuries of tradition has now been changed due to a campaign launched by a transgender student, who has managed to persuade the college that women should be allowed to wear trousers and men should be allowed to wear skirts.
St Catharine’s is believed to be the first college at the 800-year-old university to change its formal dress code, though others are now expected to follow suit.
The campaign was led by a 25-year-old American Charlie Northrop studying for a PhD in Classics, who began transitioning from male to female earlier this year.
“I’m over the moon, it’s absolutely wonderful that it’s now been passed,” she said. “It wasn’t that there was much resistance, it’s just the new wording had to be sound and there was a lot of conversations between the college and the committee.”
“We had to come up with a way of proposing a new dress code that would omit gender specification but would still keep formality.”
“For instance the college wanted to ensure those wearing suits would still wear ties but female suits don’t have ties so we’ve worded it so that if you have buttons down the left side you don’t have to wear a tie but down the right side you do,” said Northrop.
She added: “Everyone has been so helpful and it’s been great to make a new change.”
“I’ve been speaking to students from other colleges now who hope to make the change across the varsity.”
The new dress code in a notice from the Dean states: “Formal Hall is an occasion on which all members of St Catharine’s should wear gowns.”
“Members and their guests must be dressed in suitably smart dress. ‘Smart dress’ is defined without reference to considerations of gender identity or expression,” read the notice. “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.
The staff were instructed to refuse admission to anyone coming to Formal Hall improperly dressed.
Formal Hall is the name given by colleges to the evening meal in a dining hall where students and dons eat together, with their food served by college servants.
Ms Northrop, from Richmond, Indiana, studied classics at John Cabot University in Rome for five years before moving to Cambridge for post-graduate study.
The campaigner said that she felt wrong with the sex she was but it was hard to explain in words.
“It was when I was 18 that I began the real process of realising I wanted to transition,” she adds. “It was when I got to Cambridge that it really became possible. The university is inspiring and full of such supportive people.”
“When I was an undergraduate I didn’t do much campaigning, it’s something I started while I’m here. My friends and family have been so supportive throughout it all.”
Two years ago, the rules on graduation dress were rewritten to include no reference to gender – but this did not extend to formal dinners at the colleges.