Rise, fall, reprise of toga party

The year the toga parade turned sour in 2009. Photo: Peter McIntosh
The year the toga parade turned sour in 2009. Photo: Peter McIntosh
As the University of Otago celebrates 150 years, Jono Edwards  revisits the sights and sounds of Orientations past.

Much like the empire which inspired it, the history of the toga party is filled with both celebration and carnage.

Creator of the event, then social activities manager Stephen Hall-Jones, said the Orientation institution officially started in the early 1990s as a party in the Union Hall.

Toga-clad students pose in 1997. Photo: ODT files
Toga-clad students pose in 1997. Photo: ODT files
It was thought of as a way to initiate new students, and was an instant success.

''All the first-years went; usually it wasn't that cool to go if you were a second or third year.''

The event took halls of residence by surprise, he said.

''They suddenly wondered where all their bedding had gone, but they sort of took it with a certain amount of humour.''

The idea itself came from 1978 frat-house comedy Animal House.

Dancing students dressed in sheets, worn in the style of a toga, were accompanied by popular local or national bands.

Throughout its early history it was one of the larger Orientation nights.

After growing year-on-year, the event was moved to the Dunedin Town Hall in 2001.

With this came the instigation of the toga parade in which the students would march like a Roman battalion from the university.

Usually upon gathering in the Octagon they would be greeted by the mayor.

Former Dunedin mayor Peter Chin remembers the parades in the mid-2000s being fairly orderly.

''The city organised it and it was done with young primary school, maybe even kindy, children leading the parade with a pipe band.

''I ended up with a megaphone in my mayoral robes welcoming them to Dunedin and saying they were part of our Dunedin family.''

Gradually the events became more boisterous.

''The next year they overran the pipe band and the children. I addressed them in the town hall. It was really noisy, but it was great fun.''

In 2009 he did not give his address as he was in Wellington. It was the year the parade became a ''riot''.

Students threw eggs, flour, faeces, paint and bottles, smashed signs and broke windows on George St and adjoining footpaths.

Part of the trouble stemmed from sophomores and third-year students pelting first-year counterparts with various objects from balconies.

''Someone from the media called me in the morning and asked my view on the riot in George St and I didn't know what they were talking about,'' Mr Chin said.

The university disciplined 17 students for their behaviour, three of whom were suspended from classes for a semester.

Then students' association president Edwin Darlow said at the time he believed the chaos partly came from ''pent-up energy'' following the cancellation of other Orientation events because of rain.

The parade was not held again, but the party continued, with students told to find their own way to the venue.

The event has been resurrected from a troubled past and continues now at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Current association events manager Jason Schroeder said the venue change removed the capacity for attendees to be assaulted by other students and there were many measures in place to ensure their safety.

''They all arrive within their colleges. It's still a good way for them to meet other first-year students.''


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