It was during the Middle Ages that academic worlds began to develop the variety of colors on the gowns and hoods until the wearing of today's traditional academic dress as a tradition emerged. Most of them come from the universities of Europe during the twelfth century and like the pages, squires, and knights of the medieval military, the academic world has traditionally acknowledged three basic levels of distinction and achievement.

    Students and teachers in many medieval universities such as Paris, Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge organized themselves into guilds. Gradually the academic costume became distinctive for Bachelors of Arts (the apprentices), Masters of Arts (the teachers), and Doctors (teachers who had completed postgraduate studies). Most of the distinctive characteristics appeared in the hood, which was originally a practical element of dress, but which evolved into a separate and purely ornamental article, draped over the shoulder and down the back. The academic cap was a later development. It was first conferred as a symbol of the M.A. degree.
    - Lunce, Stephen E. Phd, Regalia History

For almost a thousand years the square cap, the flowing black gown, and the elaborate ceremonial hood for those earning advanced college degrees has been the distinctive style of academic dress. It’s roots lie in the oldest English speaking institution of higher learning, Oxford University, which earliest beginnings go back to around as far as 1096. It was here that the traditions of academic regalia first developed from the garments worn by monks and clerics when long robes were needed for warmth in unheated buildings. One example of required graduation regalia cited by a historian occurred early the century at the Council of Oxford. In 1222 a closed, flowing gown called cappa clausa was deemed necessary. The bishop of Canterbury ordered his English clerics to wear it. Consequently this article of clothing came to be considered the academic dress for university masters who, as clerics, wore it. As time went by and education became more readily available to the laity the garment became standardized as an exclusively academic one. The enormous variety in color and material began to indicate the position and wealth of the wearer. Over time unique gowns emerged to designate various professions, trades and religious orders.

The beginnings of academic regalia

During the 14th century policies of certain colleges in England began to forbid "excess in apparel" and stipulated a long gown for all scholars. Oxford and Cambridge set down an explicit academic dress code implementing academia control over all particulars. In 1311 an ordinary headdress of medieval laymen termed the pileus, was agreed to by the Church at the Synod of Bergamo and became the customary headwear at the universities. Eventually a rounded skull cap replaced the hood. There are a few European institutions of higher learning that still sport this style as part of their regalia. It’s from this kind of hat that today’s square cap called the pileus quadralus or more commonly known as Oxford’s mortar board is customary. Today's tassel is also an elaboration of the tuft that was a part of the Master's caps. Mortarboards with tassels are displayed over the left front quadrant and the tassel's color signifies the academic program area. One source explains that according to the Burgon Society which researches academic regalia states, “The first was a black skullcap and the second was a tufted, square cap called a pileus quadralus that was worn on top of the skullcap. The tufted cap evolved into a stiff-cornered cap that would not drape across the wearer’s face. The term “mortarboard” was first used in an 1854 novel, The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, an Oxford Freshman, as a sarcastic reference to the cap’s shape.”

Cowls worn by monks of the Middles Ages as protection against the rainy weather of Europe is the source of today’s hood as an academic vestment. They were “worn over a short cape, known as a tippet, and had a tail, known as a liripipe." The original purposes of these items were to aid in pulling the “hood over the head and wrapped around the throat to keep the hood in place.” Nowadays even though the hood is never worn during graduation ceremonies the tippet remains as a remnant of the hood with the liripipe as the funnel-shaped part that drapes down the back of the robe. This practice of wearing the hood hanging down the back stems from the convention of medieval monks using the hood as a bag draped over the shoulders as a 'contribution bowl' for clients and well wishers while in attendance of the King's Court.

Trimmings and the European approach to academic dress were imported to the United States as early as colonial times. In 1895 an Intercollegiate Code standardized the regalia. They met at Columbia University to establish the first academic costume code regulating the cut, style and materials of robes. Specifications of different colors for different disciplines were also created. Records indicate that the first time caps and gowns were worn at a U.S. graduation ceremony was in 1894 at the University of Michigan.

Things that hang from people's mirrors

    A graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that 'individuality' is the key to success.
    Robert Orben

The types of academic gowns differ depending on the kind of degree that has been earned. The more understated variations in their style and cut indicates the type of diploma received. For example a bachelor's gown is untrimmed, has pointed sleeves, and reaches only to the knees. It’s designed to be worn closed and is never worn at any time other than commencement.

The master's gown is also typically untrimmed, but has closed sleeves in the shape of an arc. The master's hood is usually three and a half feet long and six inches shorter than the hoods of scholars who hold doctorates. The hood is “worn around the neck with the thin velvet panel in front and the larger panel in back. The inside lining is folded outward down the back to expose the school colors. The lining of the hood is the official color or colors of the university conferring the degree and the velvet trim color indicates the discipline in which the degree was earned.” Although the bachelor and master gowns are very much alike, the full-length sleeves of the master’s gown are characterized by a long crescent shape, which extends below the cut at the base of the sleeve itself. Master’s gowns, like the bachelor’s is usually black and may be worn open or closed. Oftentimes it is worn as part of a teacher’s everyday dress in academies as well as formal events such as commencement.

Finally doctoral degree holders wear distinctive gowns trimmed with velvet panels “draped around the neck and stitched down the front edges. It is faced down the front with black velvet and across the sleeves with three bars of velvet; the velvet used for the facings and crossbars may be either black or the color distinctive to the field of study to which the degree pertains.” With bell shaped sleeves the gown may be worn open or closed and it may also be another color besides black. The color is usually determined by the institution that granted them their doctorate. They are worn solely on formal occasions such as commencement and the installation of a university president. Doctorates may wear a six- or eight-cornered velvet tam or beret instead of the mortarboard, and “may also wear a gold tassel on their caps. All other tassels are either black or the color associated with the wearer’s field of study.”

Additional color and finery is passed on in the faculty processions denoted by gold trimmed gowns and hats of the senior University officers: the Pro-Chancellors, the Vice-Chancellor and the Chancellor. In all forms of graduation garb silk or velvet bands of color border the hoods, each color signifying the discipline. For example light blue can be for education, yellow for science, brown for business and so on. The distinction between masters and doctors is a comparatively modern trend; both masters and doctorate levels of accomplishment imply the right to teach. Today when a university is granted the right to confer doctoral degrees it acquires the opportunity to design exclusive and unique regalia for its graduates. As a result each university maintains its own individual design of its doctoral robes. The latter part of the 19th century saw the use of specific colors to signify certain faculties become uniform in the United States.

Etiquettes of wearing regalia for graduates:

  • Use low heat and extreme care when ironing the gown. A garment steamer or steam from a hot shower may also help to smooth out any wrinkles.
  • Keeping the gown on a hanger will avoid new wrinkles.
  • Do not pin jewelry to the gown.
  • Wear the motarboard with the point between the eyes and level it so that it is parallel to the ground.
  • Arrange the tassel to the left before the conferring of degrees. Some institutions ask recipients to move the tassel to the right as they receive their diplomas while others ask the class wait and move their tassels as a group.

Adrift with diploma for sails and lots of nerve for oars

Centuries of tradition are colorfully exhibited in the academic regalia worn by the faculty on ceremonial occasions. Generally speaking most of the universities in the United States and Europe follow traditional ceremonial dress with occasional variations. The regalia have their origins in medieval times, when it was actually a criminal offense for anyone not a member of the university to wear the traditional cap, gown, and hood. Since that time, scholars have worn regalia to display their affiliation with the university and their continuing quest for knowledge.


Academic Costume Code & Ceremony Guide:

Arbiter Online - The History of Academic Regalia: ART/2004/04/22/40878ab3befbc

Commencement: Regalia:

History of Academic Regalia:

Texas A&M Graduation - Regalia History:

British schools and American schools use different color schemes and gown styles. In general, American gowns are designed according to the Intercollegiate Costume Code, which was established in the mid-1800s.

The school colors are inside the hood; the hood's trim indicates the degree. Look below for a list of the colors that correspond to each degree. (Note that the color usually signifies the degree, not your field or major. So if you got a B.A. in music, the trim would be white, not pink.)

Associate's gowns are often gray, and Bachelor's gowns are generally black and have straight sleeves. The Master's gown looks much like the Bachelor's, but it has long pointed sleeves. The Master's hood is longer than the Bachelor's, which is in turn longer than the Associate's. Size does matter.

Doctoral gowns are trimmed with three fuzzy stripes on the arms and two long fuzzy stripes going down the center. Sometimes these stripes are black; other times, they represent the degree colors. Some institutions have unique doctoral gowns (probably because they want to stand out and look special). Here are all the unique gowns of which I'm aware:

Boston College: Maroon robe with black trim.
Brown: Brown robe with black trim.
Columbia: Gray robe; trim signifies field of study.
Cornell: Red robe with black trim.
Duke: Royal blue robe with black trim.
Harvard: Crimson robe with black trim.
Johns Hopkins: Dull gold robe with black trim.
MIT: Gray robe with red trim.
New York University: Purple robe with black trim.
Northwestern: Purple robe with black trim.
Princeton: Black robe with orange trim.
Rutgers: Red robe with black trim.
University of Chicago: Maroon robe with black trim.
University of Pennsylvania: Red robe; sleeves are red at the top, but blue at the bottom.
Yale: Royal blue robe with black trim.

Here are the colors that correspond to each degree. I've organized them by color shade with browns and metallics at the end.

White: Arts and Letters (BA, MA)
Pink: Music (MM, DM); Social Work (MSW)
Salmon: Public Health (MPH)
Crimson: Communication
Scarlet: Divinity, Theology (BD, MDiv, DD, MTh, etc.)
Apricot: Nursing (BSN, MSN)
Orange: Engineering (BSE, MSE, etc.)
Lemon: Library Science (MLS)
Yellow: Science (BS, MS, ScD)
Maize: Agriculture
Green: Medicine (MD, DO)
Olive: Pharmacy, other health degrees (MHS, PharmD)
Light Blue: Counseling, Education (EdD)
Blue: Philosophy (MPhil, PhD,DPhil)
Blue-Violet: Architecture
Lavender: Dentistry (DDS, DMD)
Purple: Law (JD, SJD, LLM)
Russet (reddish-brown): Forestry (MF), Conservation
Brown: Fine Arts (BFA, MFA)
Gray: Veterinary Medicine (DVM)
Copper: Accounting, Business (MBA), Commerce, Economics
Silver: Chiropractic, Speech, Oratory
Gold: Psychology (PsyD)

Again, if you have additions, please /msg me. Thanks!

English Universities determine their own academic dress as they wish, but almost inevitably, choose to ape the traditions of Oxbridge, with robes, hoods, and other such foolishness much in evidence. One notable possible exception is Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who, judging by the dress of Professor Peter Henderson in the 2003 Southampton graduation photographs, have a suit-based formal dress.

Who cares?

It rather depends on the institution: I am reliably informed that many Cambridge colleges have various formal events (such as "formal hall" dinners) at which wearing a robe is mandatory, making ownership of appropriate undergraduate dress practically essential. By contrast, at Southampton, one never wears such dress except to participate in the graduation ceremonies, thus guaranteeing that no-one really cares what the dress is, as long as they look as good as the people around them, a fact that the official robemakers viciously exploited this year by lending graduating masters in the School of Electronics and Computer Science the same robes as bachelors. Although many people noticed, this author knows of no-one who bought their own robe.

The baldric.

The baldric, a ceremonial adaptation of the medieval knife belt slung over the shoulder, is another part of formal academic regalia. Information about them is hard to find, even from institutions that grant them, so this discussion is built partly on observation and partly on inference.

You will have seen them among members of the faculty at formal graduation or matriculation ceremonies. They are approximately 3-foot-long strips of cloth with a large fastener for the shoulder. The strip is perhaps 4 inches wide. Baldrics pin to the right shoulder and the strip of cloth drops in front and behind.

The fastener usually bears a heraldic device of the granting institution, which may be more or less abstractly symbolic. I recently saw one which looked like a large butonnaire (or maybe a rosette) in bright fuscia and white, with cloth strip in the same colors. The baldric of the American Academy in Rome bears the Janus-head device of the institution on a medallion fastener. This secures the cloth strip of the academic colors for the fields pursued at the Academy, brown (fine arts) and white (humanities, arts and letters). Thin horizontal fur strips articulate this baldric at either end and about a foot up from the bottom of the front, below the fastener.

So much for observation. Now for inference. Why baldrics? The code governing academic regalia forbids wearing two hoods at one time. Recipients of honorary degrees, no matter how academically eminent, come to their hooding ceremony with only a gown. Unless I am much mistaken, the baldric is a device which permits institutions to confer distinctive honorary ornaments without forcing the recipient to divest herself of her alma mater's PhD hood.

Post scriptum.

Those wanting to delve further into the history (and, I fear, inherent vanity, in more than one sense of that word) of academic regalia may profitably consult the following:

Fussell, Paul. 1991. BAD, or, the Dumbing of America. (Pages 74-75, tracing the fad for colored doctoral gowns to Harvard.)
----------. 2002. Uniforms. Why We Are What We Wear. (Pages 142-145, offering a fuller history of the evolution of US academic garb.)

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