Something of Our Own: The Story Behind Fellows and Members Robes at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists will be holding its next Fellows Admissions Ceremony at its headquarters near Regent’s Park this Friday. The ceremony marks the formal confirming of Fellowship and Honorary Fellowship status to eligible members of the College.

All obstetric and gynaecological practitioners who complete the RCOG’s membership examinations and fulfil certain training and professional development requirements are given the status of Member of the RCOG (MRCOG). Fellowship of the College (FRCOG) is awarded after a member has practiced the specialty for at least 12 years and has contributed to the maintenance and development of standards and care in obstetrics and gynaecology. Honorary Fellows are individuals outside the medical profession who have contributed to the work of the College. Past Honorary Fellows have included British and Overseas Royalty and philanthropists with special interest in College’s work.

The most striking sight you would see when stepping foot into the College on Admission Ceremony day is the sea of blue robes with College insignias filling every hall as new admissions change into their regalia. The College’s signature Members, Fellows and Presidential Robes are part of a tradition as old as the College itself. But this was one tradition that did not come about easily.

In 1931 the College’s co-founder and first president, Professor William Blair Bell, put forward the suggestion that the British College of Obstetricians, as it was known then, should have traditions and iconography of its own. This would both distinguish it from the two older medical colleges in Britain and send the message that the College was one to be taken as seriously as its older sisters. Blair Bell threw himself into working on detailed designs for the College’s coat of arms, President’s badge, and membership certificates.

The early years of the College were fraught with dissent from medical practitioners who were highly sceptical of the need for the creation of a separate College for obstetrics and gynaecology. Eminent gynaecological surgeon Victor Bonney, for example, was concerned that the new College would regress the specialty back to the bad old days of poor practice and limited surgical training.

The pressure was on to prove the worth of the College to the cynics. On 11th January 1931 Blair Bell wrote to the College’s other founder, William Fletcher Shaw, regarding arrangements for College meetings and admissions ceremonies (see images below).

He writes: “I am anxious, too, to have robes for Fellows and Members, and I have a good design from Ede and Ravenscroft. I should like to bring this as a decided thing before the Annual Meeting. It would, I believe, be warmly welcomed. A few of our gowns at academic gatherings would be a great advertisement. Already the coat of arms seems to have given the College something around which to rally- something of its own.”

However, the reception to his idea was lukewarm at best. Even Fletcher Shaw admits, in his book ‘Twenty-Five Years: The Story of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’, that he was less than keen on wearing ‘strange garments’ which would generate curiosity and questions from onlookers.

Blair Bell responded that the older medical colleges had already adopted members’ robes and that, as College President, he planned to wear a specially designed robe himself. The last thing he wanted was to appear on stage in a gown when no one else was wearing theirs!

He replied in one letter, dated 28th February (see image below) “Unless we establish our own traditions and take our proper place in the sun as obstetricians and gynaecologists, you may be quite sure no one else will do it for us.”

Despite the opposition, Blair Bell’s designs for College robes were soon submitted to Members and Fellows for comment and approval. Our archive has Blair Bell’s designs for the College’ robes. The signature blue and grey design is very much like the one still in use by Members and Fellows today.

Blair Bell and Fletcher Shaw realised that an important step in gaining support for this ceremonial attire was to persuade the Council to wear robes at the College’s first admission ceremony in 1931. The small ceremony, featuring only three Fellows and six Members being admitted, was held in Glasgow.

Fletcher Shaw writes that this one event, with so much of the young College’s reputation hanging on the line, was nerve-racking. He was given the impression that, though the College Council had submitted to wearing robes, they were less than convinced at the idea of such a formalised admissions ceremony. After all, what had the College done to earn it? The costumes, regalia and formula of introductions were without the weight of centuries of tradition and to some must have seemed, at first glance, more like a group playing ‘dress up’ than a serious organisation.

William Blair Bell in presidential robes, seated and standing, c.1930 (Archive reference RCOG/PH1/1/9)
William Blair Bell in presidential robes, seated, c.1930 (Archive reference RCOG/PH1/1/9)

But by the end of the evening, Fletcher Shaw was convinced minds had been changed. Blair Bell’s ‘flair’ for ceremony and his attention to detail had brought them success and enough goodwill to keep the College’s Council, Members and Fellows on-board. Blair Bell carried out this same admissions ceremony twice a year during his presidency. Many of the traditions brought about on that day will be seen during the College’s next Fellows Admissions Ceremony tomorrow.

Traditions have to start somewhere. In 1931 Blair Bell and Fletcher Shaw had brought about the foundation of the College’s character and given its Members something to bring them together; something of their own.

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