A quick explainer on one of Oxford’s newest and oddly poetic traditions: giving and wearing carnations for luck and support during exams.
Your heart on your sleeve
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.
We’re not entirely sure how far back the carnation tradition goes but it’s quite new by Oxford standards — maybe even only a few decades old.
By all indications, though, it’s too recent for its first practitioners to have had inkwells to stow their carnations in (red or otherwise, though obviously red ink is not really standard issue either).
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’s standard practice to just get hold of all three colours at once and use as needed.
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.