What the new student won't be seen dead in: Isabel Wolff finds out what happened to the old stripey college scarf

Isabel Wolff
Saturday 01 October 1994 23:02 BST

'ARE YOU going to buy yourself a university scarf?' I asked Steve Grimmer, a first-year biology student at University College London.

'I don't know,' he replied cautiously. 'I've only been here four days.'

I glanced round the thronged Student Union building. Plenty of expensive-looking trainers, but not a scarf in sight. 'Have you actually seen one yet?' I asked him. He shook his head and I produced one from my bag, a purple and pale turquoise stripey woollen affair which I'd bought from the university shop. 'Oh yuk, that's really nasty,' he murmured. 'Really garish. No, I'm not interested.'

Nor, it seems, are the majority of British students. The college scarf, that jolly symbol of undergraduate life, has disappeared from our campuses. It has not even re-emerged on University Challenge. For 25 years the set of the student quiz programme was swathed in lengths of colourful wool - but with the recent relaunch there's not so much as a narrow stripe to be seen. 'We wanted to give the programme a fresh, contemporary feel,' said the producer, Kieran Roberts. 'We got the impression that undergraduates don't really wear them any more.'

'Actually, our sales are increasing hugely,' said Bob Leigh, general manager of Luke Eyres Ltd of Waterbeach, Cambridge, sole purveyor of scarves to Britain's universities. 'We sold about 30,000 last year, which is a lot. But the funny thing is that I go round a lot of the university shops, and I hardly ever see anybody wearing one. I think they just regard them as souvenirs. They buy one in their first term and then stuff it in a cupboard.'

The manager of the shop at University College London bore this out. 'Our sales have actually increased over the last 10 years while I've been here,' he told me in the busy union shop in the basement of the Bloomsbury Theatre. 'We sold 540 last year which represents quite an increase. But we rarely see anyone wearing one.' So why do they sell? He says that students buy them to please their parents. 'We get a great rush on them just before Christmas. That's always our busiest time. And a lot of students buy them when they graduate, as a memento.'

'I haven't got one,' said Charlie Hand, a second year French student at UCL. 'I've already been here a year and I don't think I've ever actually seen anybody wear one. Personally I wouldn't be seen dead in one. Anyway, they cost pounds 13 and I can't afford that.'

'I think college scarves look pretentious,' said his friend Margaret Sinclair, a first-year zoology student, seriously. 'It's a thing of the past. It's very Brideshead, very traditional, very, you know, Oxbridge.'

But at Oxbridge, sales are not what they once were, despite the romantic image of bicycling undergraduates racing down narrow streets, scarves flapping behind them in the wind. 'We do still sell them, of course,' said a spokesman for Ede and Ravenscroft, the University outfitters in Cambridge. 'But I can't say that they are selling quite as well as they did 20 years ago.'

According to Mr Leigh, it's the newer universities which are buying the most, especially the former polytechnics which have only recently become universities. 'I think that they're quite keen to show off their new status,' he said.

'I'm not so sure about that,' said Mike Crane, the student welfare officer for Hertfordshire University, formerly Hatfield Polytechnic. 'Last year we only sold 200, but that's simply because our colours are so horrible - cream, purple and black. That's what it really comes down to. Aesthetics.'

(Photograph omitted)

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