THE wearing of the red gown by students at St Andrews University is one of the most iconic traditions of any higher education institution.

While the use of gowns at other universities has been relegated to graduation day, undergraduates at St Andrews still cloak themselves in scarlet for chapel services, formal dinners, meetings of the union debating society and the traditional pier walk each Sunday.

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Now the traditional red gown is at the centre of a legal wrangle after lawyers for St Andrews raised an action at the Court of Session in Edinburgh against a private company which is supplying similar garments at around two thirds of the price of the official version.

Purchasing a gown from the university shop will set students back £159, but Churchill Gowns, founded in Australia in 2014, is offering red "St Andrews" gowns on its website at £99.

Churchill also sold gowns in the Fife town during Freshers Week in September, partnering with a local business. The move angered the students' association because it holds a sale of second hand gowns to help fund student support services.

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Legal representatives of St Andrews are alleging Churchill Gowns advertised their products in such a way that suggested "a false endorsement by or association with the university" and thus was "likely to deceive the public into a mistaken belief" that the goods being sold were official university products.

The Churchill website currently states: "The red undergraduate gown is an icon of the University of St Andrews, and part of a tradition much loved by its students.

"Made from a fleece blend fabric with a velveteen collar, the scarlet gown also undoubtedly serves to keep students cosy and warm, even on the Scottish coast.

"At Churchill Gowns you can order your red St Andrew's undergraduate gown brand new. Our St Andrews undergraduate gowns are made to university specifications."

Churchill Gowns have been asked not to sell any university gowns or goods with the trade marks "University of St Andrews" or "St Andrews" and not to pass themselves off as being associated with, endorsed by, or connected with "the university or its business".

However, Churchill Gowns defended its methods and said it would continue to advertise and sell its red gowns to students from St Andrews.

The company said its online sales page had a clear disclaimer stating: “Churchill Gowns is not affiliated with and does not represent this institution in any way.”

Oliver Adkins, the UK's managing director of Churchill Gowns, said the business was founded to offer students a more affordable and sustainable alternative to traditional academic dress suppliers.

He said: "We believe participation in these ancient traditions should not be reserved for those who can afford to pay a premium, and instead should be open to all.

"It’s a shame that the University of St Andrews are seeking to deny students this choice and have gone to such extreme lengths to protect the profits they make.

"Churchill Gowns has never sought to prevent students from buying a university endorsed gown. However, we will strongly defend our right to compete in the marketplace and offer a more affordable option to students for whom a £160 price tag is out of reach."

A spokesman for St Andrews said: "We believe in responsible enterprise, and that students should expect the purchase of a red gown to be a decision based on clear and consistent information.

"The purpose of the cease and desist letter is to make clear the concerns of the university and its students. In our view it is not sufficient that a company states it is not affiliated with the university, while it also claims gowns are made to university specifications.

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"This is a false endorsement, which we believe constitutes mis-selling of gowns to students who believe they will be of equivalent quality to the official university gown.

"We know student representatives are understandably concerned that students are being led unwittingly to purchase gowns that are different from official gowns, which do not support the Student Association or teaching and research within the university as official gowns do, and that a unique student tradition is being diminished by this confusion. Association staff take seriously their duty to protect student interests, and we expect them to do so robustly and fairly."

Earlier this year, an independent adviser to the Scottish Government on widening access argued the wearing of the red gown at St Andrews was elitist.

Professor Peter Scott said at the time: "A university such as St Andrews, that prides itself on its traditions, needs to take into account the fact that that might act as a bit of a put-off for certain applicants.

"Students there parade around in red gowns. That is probably not an image some people want to be associated with. Such universities need to work a bit harder to provide to those people that they would fit in and would be welcome there."