How Harry Potter May Have Been Influenced by the Uniforms of University Students in Portugal

A Coimbra university student in uniform, cloak and all
A Coimbra university student in uniform, cloak and all
Bobo Boom, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

Consider the cloak: that heavy, full-length piece of outerwear most often associated with epic fantasy franchises, and specifically, Harry Potter. It’s not something you’d wear to class, not if you value practicality—and yet somehow it remains the most iconic part of the wizarding school uniform.

But in the non-magical world, Portuguese university students have been wearing cloaks to class day in, day out, more or less since higher education was invented. They are the indisputable pioneers of the trend—so much so that many would swear, under Veritaserum if needed be, that J.K. Rowling was inspired by the Portuguese when picking out the outfits for her young wizards. Although Rowling has never been explicit about her inspiration for the cloaks, she wrote part of what would become Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone while living in Porto, Portugal, in the 1990s. Tour guides often point out the cloaked university students, whom Rowling must have seen walking to and from class, as the likely inspirations behind the Hogwarts dress code.

The look stems from the history of post-secondary education in Portugal, which has some of the oldest universities in the world. When the country's first university—the University of Coimbra—was created in 1290 in Lisbon, teaching was a religious vocation (as was learning), and so the medieval campus was teeming with clergymen. There wasn’t a student uniform, exactly, but the mish-mash of men from different religious orders did result in a student look: a dark, severe ensemble that civilian students began to approximate in the centuries that followed. As late as 1850, the all-male student body at the University of Coimbra was still wearing knee-length cassocks over shorts and knee socks. A long cloak topped off the whole outfit, lending a decidedly clerical look to the decidedly civilian students.

Things changed, dramatically, in the latter half of the 19th century. The progressive spirit of the era replaced the old-fashioned shorts with a practical three-piece suit, composed of black frock coat, waistcoat, and tailored pants—and so the standard male university uniform, or traje, was born. The cumbersome old cloak very nearly went out of commission then, but the boys had reportedly grown so attached to its drama that they kept wearing it over the new suits. School authorities allowed the cloak to remain, proudly anachronistic, to sweep the cobblestones of Coimbra another day. When the country’s second and third universities were founded in 1911, in the cities of Lisbon and Porto, students rushed to adopt the same weirdly popular suit-and-cloak combo.

Students from the Orfeão Universitário do Porto, a student association at the University of Porto, pictured in their trajes in 1956
Students from the Orfeão Universitário do Porto, a student association at the University of Porto, pictured in their trajes in 1956.
Lpmateus87, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 4.0

Girls didn’t get a standard uniform until 1945, when the Orfeão Universitário do Porto, a student association at the then-young University of Porto, accepted the first female members into its roster. (Before then, women didn't have any particular school attire, although they were sometimes told to wear all black so as not to stand out.) Members of the Orfeão were expected to perform traditional Portuguese singing and dancing in full uniform, and the girls rose to the occasion by suiting up in their very own, alternate version of the traje. They found their inspiration in the stripped-down practicality of military women’s uniforms and settled on a knee-length trapeze skirt and boxy three-button jacket. The cloak, of course, was the final touch, which quickly caught on at other schools.

Today, there are over 300,000 university students in Portugal, a respectable number of whom routinely wear the traje to class. It is no longer mandatory, as it once was, but it doesn’t need to be. To wear this historic uniform is to embrace and broadcast one’s identity as a student—although it’s also to be frequently confused with a Harry Potter cosplayer. Foreign visitors to Portugal sometimes make that mistake, but they should know the opposite is likelier to be true: Local students have been wearing cloaks to class since long before Harry Potter was cool.

20 Weird Clubs That Actually Exist

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

Groucho Marx once famously quipped that he'd never "want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members." Most people would probably say the same about the Martin-Baker Ejection Tie Club—a very exclusive, 63-year-old organization created specifically for individuals who have had their lives saved by an ejection seat. Currently, the club boasts more than 6000 members.

That's just one of the weird and wonderful clubs you'll learn about in our latest edition of The List Show. Join Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy as she hunts down the world's most unusual clubs (Extreme Ironing Bureau anyone?). You can watch the full video below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

An Explosive History of the T-Shirt Cannon

Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images
Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images

As the mascot for the San Antonio Spurs from 1983 to 2004, Tim Derk—also known as the Coyote—was constantly looking for ways to make the live game experience better for fans. In addition to dancing, antagonizing players, and engaging with attendees, Derk did what many mascots do to raise morale: He gave the crowd free stuff.

Shirts, hats, and other apparel were tossed out on a regular basis, though the gifts were limited to the ability of a mascot’s throwing arm. Which meant that fans seated in the upper bleachers didn’t get much of anything, except maybe a nosebleed.

Derk and the other mascots used huge rubber bands to propel shirts to those people seated higher up in the stands, but even those had limited range. Then, in the 1990s, Derk and his peers decided to become apparel arms dealers. They designed and fabricated a massive, 90-pound cast-iron pipe 4 feet in length that used the pneumatic principle to blast T-shirts into the air and into the arms of fans.

Once Derk strapped it on for an appearance during a game as “Rambote,” sports would never be the same again.

The T-shirt cannon can be traced back to Britain during World War II, when sailors on commercial freighter ships were left vulnerable after their anti-aircraft weapons had been rerouted to warships. Desperate to protect themselves from enemy attack, the sailors adopted a weapon developed by the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. Dubbed a Holman Projector, it could shoot projectiles out of a tube using steam from the ship’s boiler.

Rugby mascot Captain Hurricane (L) stands near former Hurricanes player Norm Hewitt (R) as he fires a T-shirt cannon at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand in May 2018
Hagen Hopkins, Getty Images

Sailors usually lobbed grenades in this manner, but when they weren’t under direct threat—which was most of the time—they loaded the gun with less-lethal ammunition, like potatoes. When Winston Churchill observed a demonstration and someone forgot the grenades, operators used beer bottles instead.

Without a wartime steam boiler, people still felt a need to launch projectiles. Contemporary “spud launchers” use compressed gas, usually carbon dioxide, that is delivered into an air tank. When the trigger is pulled, the gas is released all at once, and the energy shoots whatever’s in the barrel. That can be a potato, a paintball pellet, or a rolled-up T-shirt.

Derk was intrigued by the concept of the spud launcher and adopted it for clothing. When he began brandishing his T-shirt cannon, other mascots quickly followed suit. Kenn Solomon, also known as Rocky the Mountain Lion—a mascot cheering on the Denver Nuggets—had a friend build him one after seeing Derk’s. Solomon also got involved in selling them commercially. Pretty soon, the device was in heavy use across the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL organizations, growing smaller and lighter with each passing year. Once 90 pounds, the cannons now weigh as little as two pounds.

This T-shirt arms race grew to include multi-barrel guns like Big Bella, a 600-pound behemoth which debuted in 2012 at a Philadelphia 76ers game and could fire 100 shirts every 60 seconds. Not to be outdone, the Milwaukee Bucks introduced a triple-barreled gun powerful enough to propel vests and jackets. The Army’s football team built a tiny T-shirt tank.

Rumble, the mascot for the Oklahoma City Thunder, fires a T-shirt cannon at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in May 2016
J Pat Carter, Getty Images

Despite having a relatively innocuous payload, these guns have not always brought joy to attendees. In 2018, a mascot named Chip at the University of Colorado-Boulder suffered an injury when a T-shirt cannon malfunctioned, shooting him in the groin. (The video, of course, went viral.) That same year, a fan named Jennifer Harughty claimed that Orbit, the mascot for the Houston Astros, shot her with a T-shirt and shattered her finger, necessitating surgery. In 2019, Alex Swanson was at Citi Field for a New York Mets game and alleged that a shirt struck him in the eye and knocked him unconscious. Both sued the respective teams.

Derk surely had no idea there would be the occasional mishap, nor could he have predicted someone might misappropriate the gun for other purposes. In 2019, a woman named Kerri Jo Hickman was arrested after being caught while trying to deliver contraband—cell phones, chargers, ear buds, and drugs—by shooting it over the fence of North Folk Correction Center in Sayre, Oklahoma, with a T-shirt cannon.

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