Last Tuesday, I woke up to find that 32 newspaper articles had been written about my eyebrows. As if that wasn't surprising enough, a handful of media outlets had run with the headline, 'Hannah Woods Just Became an Unexpected Style Icon'. I checked twitter, to find several hundred people discussing my jumper. How did this happen?
The night before, I had captained my team to victory in the University Challenge final, wearing an old Topshop floral embroidered sweater. Opinion was divided on social media, to say the least. 'Woods crushing the jumper game'… 'Where did Woods get her jumper from on University Challenge? I want it. I need it.'… 'Woods is an intellectual and fashion icon'. So far, so good. On the other hand… 'Oh my god – where does Woods find her clothes? What possessed somebody to even make that frumpy jumper she's got on?'… 'She might be wearing it for charity or something. Or it might be as a punishment.'
I wasn't the only one to have my style choices analysed and dissected in the twittersphere. My teammate Julian Sutcliffe's bird print crewnecks were also the object of heated discussion throughout the series – 'bae with a bird sweater' was the general consensus, bar the odd naysayer who thought he was wearing pyjamas. From Ted Loveday's cable knit jumper to Kaamil Shah's leather vest, over the past year there has been a surprising surge in interest around University Challenge fashion.
Why is it that such an unashamedly old fashioned programme as University Challenge generates such an intense social media conversation? And why does such an unlikely source of fashion interest provoke fierce debates over contestants' style choices? Partly, it must be the show's nostalgic appeal – amid fast-paced reality TV and HBO blockbusters, the lure of a programme in which eight students earnestly answer questions on geometry, classical music and Latin vocabulary seems almost brazenly ironic. And yet, from the rise and rise of geek chic to the deliberately bland non-trend of normcore, it has never been cooler to be uncool. Even Gucci, a fashion house once known for its hyper-sexualised brand of Italian glamour, has transformed its USP into a bookishly gorgeous librarian aesthetic – all high collars, deranged maximalism, and giant glasses.
But under the studio lights of University Challenge, the lines between geek chic and, well, geek, become blurred. And fashion-forward choices, juxtaposed to tweed blazers and Christmas knits, can take on a life of their own…
It all started with Ted Loveday, and the cable knit that launched a thousand vines. Whilst Ted's lightning speed on the buzzer almost broke the internet (Jeremy Paxman: 'Meaning "said only once", what two-word Greek term denotes a word…' Loveday: 'hapax legomenon'), his oversized white cable knit sweater drew equal praise from viewers. Part of the appeal was that Loveday seemed perfectly unaware of how on trend he was – when asked by the press as to how he felt about the media reaction to his jumper, he confessed himself 'surprised by all the fuss', and explained that he'd borrowed it from his dad.
Six months later, enter Kaamil Shah. Wearing a leather vest and heavy gold chain, the King's College Cambridge contestant provoked a veritable media furore. The twitterstorm that ensued during Monday night's broadcast was nothing compared to the reactions in the national media the morning afterwards: 'University Challenge fans in uproar over contestant Kaamil Shah's leather vest', ran the headlines. Whilst some took to twitter to defend his outfit, it seemed that many viewers couldn't process Shah's departure from the standard wardrobe of quiz show contestants: tasteful knitwear, Oxford shirts and buttoned-up collars. When questioned by a rather disapproving host on BBC radio about the thought process behind his fashion choices, Shah simply said: 'I just thought, I'm going to dress like I normally do… I literally didn't clock that the vest was going to be that outrageous.'
The Dog Jumper
It was therefore with some trepidation that I checked my twitter notifications after our semi-final match, during which I had worn what for me is a fairly typical outfit: a vintage Fruit Of The Loom sweater printed with Old English Sheepdogs, worn over a lace piecrust collar. The jumper proved a hit, but reactions to the collar showed just how far the gap can be between my own perceptions of my 'look', and its effect in reality. I had hoped to convey the kind of Princess Di-inflected Victoriana that has become one of the major trends for S/S 2016, yet opinion on social media was near-unanimous: 'doily.'
You live and learn…
Words by Hannah Woods. Hannah is doing her PHD in late Victorian and Edwardian cultural history at Peterhouse College, Cambridge