Flowers and ink

A quick explainer on one of Oxford’s newest and oddly romantic traditions: giving and wearing carnations for luck and support during exams.

Our white carnation turning pink: #greatoxfordcarnationexperiment

If you’ve seen students wearing formal black-and-white academic dress (sub fusc), you may have noticed that many are wearing a flower in the lapel.

Carnations in three progressively intense colours — white, pink, then red — represent progress through exams. A white carnation is worn for the first exam, then pink for all exams until the final one, which is red.

Legend has it that in times past you might have started with a white carnation and keep it in a red inkwell until, over the course of a few days or weeks, it took on a deep red hue.

(Can you actually turn a white carnation red in an inkwell? We’re finding out over on Twitter.)

For science: #greatoxfordcarnationexperiment

We’re not entirely sure how far back the carnation tradition goes but it’s quite new by Oxford standards — maybe even only 20 years old.

By all indications, though, it’s too new for the first practitioners to have had inkwells to stow carnations in (red or otherwise, though it’s been pointed out that red ink is not really standard issue for students).

An alternative origin story injects a bit of dark whimsy, suggesting that the colours symbolise all that knowledge you’re ‘bleeding’ from your scholarly heart into your examination papers.

We weren’t able to replicate this with a white carnation and a yearning for learning, though in any case it is standard practice to just acquire all three colours at once and use as needed.

Exam carnations on display in Oxford’s Covered Market | Charlotte Linton (DPhil in Anthropology)

Where this really goes from ‘rather nice’ to ‘really quite heartwarming’ is in the giving aspect of the tradition — often it’s your friends and supporters who’ll leave you carnations in your college mailbox (‘pigeon hole’ or ‘pidge’) as a token of support and to wish you luck.

And, of course, you can wear their support on your sleeve all the way into your exam.

Pinned to your gown, carnations are a clear signal to everyone who goes past that you’re on a mission and might appreciate a sympathetic smile and/or a cup of tea.

Mid-exam pink carnation | Fran Walker (MSc Nature, Society and Environmental Governance)