Why do we still wear academic regalia?

According to my favorite unofficial source, academic dress or academical dress is a traditional form of clothing for academic settings, primarily tertiary and sometimes secondary education, worn mainly by those that have been admitted to a university degree (or similar) or hold a status that entitles them to assume them (e.g. undergraduate students at certain old universities). It is also known as academicals and, in the United States, as academic regalia. I’d like to go with regalia, as I love sounding pretentious!

Above: The pickup area for NYU academic regalia.

I picked up my academic regalia a few days ago, and the matter left me wondering about how this whole tradition came about. Why are U.S. graduates still sporting gowns, caps and tassels at their commencement ceremonies? I had to get to the bottom of this.

First, let’s start with an overview of the main ingredients, compliments of academicapparel.com. I also found a great diagram. Click it to enlarge!

Robe or Gown: The three types of degrees each have a different style gown. Bachelor’s gowns have pointed sleeves, and are worn closed. Master’s gowns have oblong sleeve, open at the wrist, with the base hanging down, and rear part of the oblong cut square while the front arc cuts away. These robes have fasteners so they can be worn open or closed. Doctoral gowns have bell-shaped sleeves, also designed with fasteners so it is worn closed or opened. For the doctor’s robes also have trimmings including velvet panels down the front and three bars of velvet on the sleeves. All three gowns are usually black, though some colleges and universities use the color of the school.

Hood: Academic Hoods are black, made from the same fabric as the gown. They vary in length depending on the degree from three feet to four feet, and the doctoral hood is wider. Lined with college or university colors, they typically have one field color and one chevron color, though sometimes there are school specific variations. The edge of hoods are velvet in the color of the degree subject.

Cowl: Cowls are typically made from velveteen rather than velvet, and are used for Associate Degrees. They do not display a degree or discipline color, just the institutional colors on the lining. The outside is generally black.

Tam: Tams are typically used for Doctoral degrees, though some Master’s programs do use them. Tams are made from velvet, and usually have a ribbon over the fabric, and in black. Color variations do occur with some colleges. The number of sides vary, and can be four, six, or eight sided. eight, six, or four sides. Four sided is usually only used for Master’s degrees, while six and eight sided are used for Doctor’s degrees depending on which the University prefers. Tams are “poofed” at the top instead of flat, and come with a tassel usually in gold, with one or two buttons and sometimes in a gold bullion color.

Mortarboard or Cap: Mortarboards are flat rather than “poofy” at the top, are not made from velvet, and are also usually black but come in a variety of colors and variations are more frequent than with tams. Mortarboards have only four sides, and typically have a tassel with a single button at the top, usually in the color of the degree-granting institution.


Ok, so let’s get down to the good stuff! Why are we still wearing these garbs? Where did it all begin?

Think of the two schools in the world where you might expect such habits to have originated… If you’re thinking Oxford and Cambridge, you got it! This crazy practice all begin during the formation of Medieval universities in the late 11th and 12th centuries. These very traditional universities even have prescriptions for what students wear under the gowns. Uptight, right?

Let’s dig a little further now. How did this all come to the United States? I mean, do we always have to copy Europe?

Apparently, its history in the U.S. all begins in Colonial American days, when the first colleges were formed. The time period is coined the Colonial Colleges period and refers to the time before the American Revolution in which nine college institutions were formed. They include the present day Harvard University, The College of William and Mary, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Columbia University, Brown University, Rutgers, and Dartmouth College. Students of most colonial colleges were required to wear the “college habit” at most times – a practice that lasted until the eve of the American Civil War in many institutions of higher learning. The academic attire was highly influenced by European practices and styles.

After the civil war, academic regalia was generally worn at ceremonies or when representing the institution. There was not, however, any standardization among the meanings behind the various costumes. In 1893, an Intercollegiate Commission made up of representatives from leading institutions was created, to establish an acceptable system of academic dress. The Commission met at Columbia University in 1895 and adopted a code of academic regalia, which prescribed the cut and style and materials of the gowns, as well as determined the colors which were to represent the different fields of learning.

Random Fact: The color of purple, as seen in the NYU gowns, is actually the color code for the Law discipline. Interesting…

Now, of course, academic attire is rarely worn outside of commencement ceremonies, and that’s what makes us so balla on that special day! Happy graduation to all my NYU Class of 2009 peeps!!! Can’t wait to look awesome in academic regalia with you on May 13th at Yankee Stadium! WHAT?!!??!! Oh, yeah! That’s how we roll. CHEERS!


2 thoughts on “Why do we still wear academic regalia?

  1. Hi,

    It’s not that you copied Europe or that you were influenced by Europe either, – it is that your original colonising population was from Europe (which is of course where all US white people come from). Moreover, most of the original colonists were British, which in those days meant England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland too; this is of course why you speak English as your official language and why your predominant culture is not only European, but is also mainly from the British Isles. Thus your academic dress is more specifically British than it is European; – Europe has lots of different nations with lots of different Academic Dress traditions of their own.

    As to Oxford and Cambridge prescribing what is worn under the academic dress, you must bear in mind that in today’s Britain, all current versions of Academic Dress are worn open down the front, so what is worn underneath has to be appropriate for the occasion because it will be seen; as a result most UK universities will advise informally on what constitutes appropriate dress. This generally means suits or trousers (pants) and jackets for men, and dresses or business suits/two pieces or blouses and skirts/pants for women. Shoes should be worn rather than trainers (sneakers), but women sometimes wear boots and many, and probably most, will wear high-heels which are way more common over here than in the US; over here even many of our female academics tend to wear heels these days.

    Having said all of this, as an academic myself, I can tell you that what seems appropriate to one person may seem inappropriate to others. So amongst the men I have seen sloganned tee-shirts with inflammatory comments and ripped worn jeans and hip hop pants. Amongst the women I have seen checked shirts and rolled up jeans with Doc Martins at one end of the scale, and at the other end of the scale, – split thigh skirts, 12 inch miniskirts, and tunics and footless tights. These latter items are all worn with 6 inch heeled platform shoes/boots for the applauded walk across the eye level stage to shake hands with the Chancellor and to collect the certificate, which is then followed by the now noticeably noisy walk off and stomp down the steps at the other end of the stage. My fingers are always crossed that there is not a calamitous fall down the steps and two stewards are positioned there to help them down if needs be.


  2. Pingback: Blog Post #1 (Due Friday, 9/13): Convocation Reflection | First-Year Seminar Fiesta

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