Graduation Gown & Accessories

The custom of wearing a distinctive dress for academic ceremonies goes back to the Middle Ages, when people dressed in keeping with their class: nobility, clergy, or third estate. The clergy were the literate class; hence early academic costume was that of the church. A heavy gown, usually black or dark brown, seems to have been worn at all times. Hoods and capes were also necessary during European winters because the buildings where scholars lived, studied, and taught were cold.

A few universities still require students to wear a short undergraduate's gown, both on and off the university premises. This is today a mere form, since the gown has been greatly reduced in size. Oxford, Cambridge, and some of the Scottish universities still maintain this custom, as do two or three small church-related American universities.

Development of Distinctive Styles. From the first, the gown of a graduate was longer than, and readily distinguishable from, that of an undergraduate. The master's or doctor's gown (the two degrees were at first of equal status) was heavy with the long hanging sleeves sewn up to form sacks. The large square "cappa" of the undergraduate was replaced on graduation by the smaller "biretta" such as is sometimes worn by Catholic and Anglican clergy today. Most of the early academic costumes were of black woollen cloth, though touches of color began to be added in Renaissance times, particularly at Oxford and Cambridge, where scarlet hoods began to be worn by doctors. The undergraduate's gown still ends above the knees and is black, except in the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and the University of the West Indies, where it is bright scarlet. The costumes worn by the faculties of French, Italian, and Spanish universities are generally decorated with very bright colors. The doctor's hood worn in other countries is replaced in France by a scarf.

The faculties of American universities seem to have worn distinguishing costumes from the beginning at Harvard in 1636. Naturally each institution was a law to itself in this regard, as European universities still are. Young men, until the last two decades of the 19th century, usually wore their first "swallow-tail" coats when they received their bachelor's degree.

As more and more graduates of American institutions continued their studies at German universities during the 19th century, a trend toward the general use of some form of academic costume became strong. The blaze of color in the European hoods and gowns at the 500th anniversary of the University of Heidelberg in 1886, as well as at the 250th anniversary of Harvard in the same year and at the sesquicentennial of Princeton in 1896, aroused a good deal of interest and comment.

Undergraduates also began to feel that they should wear some distinctive costume when they received a bachelor's degree. In 1887, Gardner Leonard of the graduating class at Williams College designed gowns for the members of his class. These were made by Cotrell & Leonard of Albany, N. Y., and their appearance evoked a good deal of favorable comment. The practice was adopted at other institutions.

In 1893, Princeton University invited leading institutions to send representatives to a meeting for the purpose of establishing a statute for an intercollegiate system of academic costume. The moving spirit behind this was Col. John James McCook, a Princeton trustee. Army experience had taught him the value of dress that clearly indicated rank and authority, and he had studied the practices and customs in European universities. He aimed to avoid in America the confusion he had observed elsewhere.

In 1894 a statute drawn up by this group was accepted by most universities and colleges in die United States. The Intercollegiate Bureau of Academic Costume was opened to record the distinctive colors of institutions, their arrangement, and the particulars, if any, of gowns, hoods, and caps, and also the pertinent information about academic ceremonies. In 1902 die regents of the University of the State of New York granted a charter to the bureau, which continues at Albany. A few small institutions refuse to subscribe to the statutes of die Bureau. In 1932 die American Council on Education formed a committee to determine if the code of 1895 should be revised. No really significant changes were recommended. A similar committee reviewed the code in 1959, making a few changes and additions, particularly in matters pertaining to degrees and institutions dating from since 1895.

Current Practices

Academic costume is at present worn in the United States by persons taking part in academic ceremonies in general, at commencement exercises, at baccalaureate services, and at various inauguration ceremonies, such as the installation of a president, the conferring of an honorary degree on a distinguished guest, or the laying of the cornerstone of a building. Some Protestant clergymen usually wear academic costume in the pulpit.

Graduation Gowns

The institutions awarding degrees, the nature of the degrees, and die faculties awarding them can be readily identified from the Academic Costume Code—with the few exceptions already noted. Thus, a Bachelor of Arts is recognized by his black gown, closed in front and with long pointed sleeves. The gown of a Master of Arts is also black and has long sleeves, these being closed with a short slit near the elbow to free die hand and forearm. The Doctor's gown is also black. The Master's and Doctor's gowns can be worn open or closed. Velvet panels 5 inches wide extend down the front edges to die bottom. There are also three horizontal velvet bars on each sleeve. Panels and bars are often black but may be of the color indicating the faculty in which the degree is granted.

Most gowns were originally made of woollen goods, though doctors sometimes wore silk. Rayon and other light synthetic fabrics are now popular because of the hot weather usually prevailing in late May or early June when most commencements take place. Holders of the doctorate from Harvard and Yale sometimes wear silk gowns, crimson or blue respectively.

Graduation Caps

The square "Oxford cap" of serge or broadcloth, with a stiff crown, is worn for most degrees. The tassel that hangs down on the left side is black for bachelors and masters and gold for doctors. In some universities women graduates wear a smaller, square, soft velvet cap.

Graduation Hoods

The greatest degree of symbolism is shown by the hood. The bachelor's hood is black and is 3 feet long, with a 2-inch velvet border in die color of die faculty in which the degree is awarded. Thus, for the B. A. die border is white, for the B. S. it is golden yellow, for the B. D., scarlet, and for the LL.B., purple, and so on for all faculties. The lining of the hood is of silk in the colors of the institution conferring the degree. Thus a Harvard B. A. hood is lined with crimson silk, a Yale with blue, a Columbia with light blue crossed by a white chevron or diagonal stripe, and a North Carolina with the same light blue crossed by two white chevrons. With the large number of bachelors now graduating annually, the use of the bachelor's hood at commencement is becoming rare.

The master's hood is also of black material, and it is 3V2 feet long with a 3-inch velvet border. The lining is in the color or colors of the institution as with the bachelor's hood. The doctor's hood is 4 feet long with a 5-inch velvet border, lined also with the colors of the institution granting the degree.

Gowns for Two-Year College and High School Graduates

In recent years colleges (particularly junior colleges) have begun granting associate degrees to students who complete two years of work successfully. At degree-granting ceremonies gowns similar to the bachelor's gown are usually worn.

Gowns and square caps are today an accepted part of high school graduation ceremonies. These may be black or of the school color. White caps and gowns are even worn by children when they receive their certificates of graduation from kindergarten.

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