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The History of Academic Regalia

When you look at photographs of your parents or your

grandparents at their high school or college graduations, you might

laugh at their outdated hairstyles, glasses, or shoes. Yet, while

other styles of dress may change dramatically from year to year,

the ceremonial graduation outfit that has been the unmistakable

uniform of a scholar for generations has scarcely changed at


The academic graduation costume — the square cap, the flowing

black gown, and the elaborate ceremonial hood for those earning

advanced college degrees — has been in continuous use in some

form for nearly 1,000 years. It originated at Oxford University in

England, the world’s oldest English-speaking educational

institution, which traces its roots as far back as 1096. It was

here that the traditions of academic regalia first developed from

the garments worn by monks and clerics.

When monks were required to shave their heads and to sit for long

hours in drafty, unheated stone buildings, capes known as tippets

and wraparound cowls or hoods were necessary to keep them warm.

Over time, the design of the gowns became standardized in academic

use and the hood was relegated to serving as ceremonial decoration

rather than performing any discernable function.

The design of the cap, or mortarboard, resulted from combining two

different types of caps commonly worn in medieval times, according

to the Burgon Society, which researches academic regalia. 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


Doctoral degree holders are permitted to 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.

The style of academic gowns varies depending on the type of degree

that has been earned. The bachelor’s gown is usually black

and has long, pointed sleeves. It is designed to be worn closed.

This type of gown is never worn at any time other than


The master’s gown, also generally black, has an oblong

sleeve. The rear part of its oblong shape is square cut and the

front has an arc cut away. Although the bachelor’s and

master’s gowns are very similar in design, the full-length

sleeves of the master’s gown are distinctive because of their

long crescent shape, which extends below the cut at the base of the

sleeve itself. Master’s gowns may be worn open or closed.

At some schools, the master’s gown is worn as part of a

teacher’s everyday dress, and is also worn for ceremonial

occasions such as commencement.

The master’s gown includes a hood that is worn around the

neck and hangs down the back. 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 (e.g., white for Humanities). 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 doctoral gown is a more elaborate costume 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. The gown itself also may be a color

other than black, depending on the granting institution. This gown

has bell-shaped sleeves and may be worn open or closed. These gowns

are worn almost exclusively on ceremonial occasions such as

commencement and the installation of a university president.

Regulations for academic regaliain the United States were written

by the American Council on Education. The Intercollegiate Code was

established in 1894, and the Depository for the Intercollegiate

Bureau of Academic Costume, recognized as the authority on academic

dress, was established in 1895. This code has not been revised

since 1932, when the Council made a few minor changes to it.

Caps and gowns were not worn at a U.S. graduation ceremony until

1894, when they first came into use at the University of


The terms “baccalaureate” and

“commencement” are often used interchangeably to refer

to graduation ceremonies, but they are actually two different

things. A baccalaureate is a farewell sermon of a religious nature

that is made to a graduating class at their commencement

ceremonies. A bachelor’s degree is also sometimes called a

baccalaureate degree. A commencement ceremony or graduation is an

academic exercise in which diplomas or degrees are conferred.

Commencement coordinator, Margene Muller, said that Boise State

does not include a baccalaureate in its commencement, but does

feature a musical performance called a benediction at the end of

the ceremony.


According to the American Council on Education Academic

Ceremony Guide, some of the colors associated with different

disciplines for all academic purposes are as follows:

Agriculture & Horticulture – Maize

Anthropology – Gold

Architecture – Blue-Violet

Arts – White

Business Administration – Drab

Civil Engineering – Orange

Communication & Journalism – Crimson

Dramatic Arts – Brown

Economics – Copper

Education – Light Blue

Engineering – Orange

English, Humanities & Literature – White

Fine Arts – Brown

Forestry – Russet

History – White

Law – Purple

Library Science – Lemon

Medicine – Hunter Green

Music – Pink

Nursing – Apricot

Philosophy – Ph.D. Blue (Dark Blue)

Physical Education – Sage Green

Physical Therapy – Teal

Public Administration – Peacock Blue

Public Health – Salmon

Science – Gold

Social Work – Citron

Theology – Scarlet

Veterinary Science – Grey

Here are a few points of etiquette regarding the wearing of

academic garb:

•Hang up the gown as soon as it is purchased to allow the

wrinkles to smooth out. Ironing the gown should be done only with

extreme caution and low heat. A garment steamer or steam from a hot

shower may also help to smooth wrinkles.

•Do not attach any jewelry to the gown.

•Wear the cap so that it is parallel to the ground, with the

point of the cap between the eyes.

•Drape the tassel to the right.

Lisa Shaw
Special to The Arbiter