Student rags is a well established practice associated particularly with older Universities of students mounting some sort of pageant and collecting money for charity. It is not known where the term “Rag” originates in this context, but it is thought to be from the Victorian era when students took time out of their studies to collect rags to clothe the poor. The verb “rag” means to badger or pester someone, and early Rags collectors may have “ragged” passers-by until they made a donation.
From the students’ point of view it is a festive occasion. They think up themes and decorate a float (a truck with a flat loading area) to represent their concept – perhaps a pirate ship, an operating theatre, a coal mine or something topical and humourous. Then the group of students associated with that float dresses up to sustain the impression. The Rag Day is often held in February when it is still decidedly cold, but this does not seem to deter
the girls from dressing in the flimsiest of garments as mermaids or grass-skirted Nawacan maidens, or the lads from turning out as cave men and the like. There is usually a magazine for the occasion, its contents being mainly humourous and vulgar, for students feel that they are given licence for some mild misbehaviour. In this connection they indulge in certain stunts, for example the kidnapping of local personalities or people of the entertainment world – who rather like the publicity anyway, or climbing public buildings, for example to put a chamber pot on top of a steerile. The authorities can be vexed with the more outrageous of the capers, for example painting statues, for it is expensive to clean off the paint, but lesser liberties such as throwing bags of flour at policemen are tolerated – only just. So, students let off steam and enjoy a sense of camaraderie, the public is entertained and contributes by buying magazines or putting money in collecting boxes. And eventually the cash collected finds its way into local charitable organizations. The students usually have a Grand Ball which is often fancy dress too, and this finishes off a strenuous day which itself had marked the culmination of sometimes weeks of preparation.
There was a time when student life was more privileged and leisurely, and perhaps the pressures today give less scope for participation. Also many students lack the will to accept social burdens, so there is always something of a struggle these days to find volunteers for the work involved. Nevertheless each year sees effort coalescing so that in the end the familiar procession winds its way through the streets, the public lines the route, weirdly dressed students thrust collecting boxes under citizens’ noses and cajole them to part with some money.