April 20, 2000
Long graduation gowns have an even longer history
ANN ARBOR—At the University of Michigan commencement exercises, undergraduates don black gowns and a gold, braided cord if they have earned honors. Doctoral graduates wear black hoods—one-piece scarves that drape over the back of the robe—trimmed with a color that represents their discipline. Engineering graduates, for example, wear orange trim, while literature and arts graduates wear white.
Why? How did it all begin?
When King Edward III granted a charter to Oxford University in 1214, the vast majority of professors were clerics. Their colorfully embroidered floor-length robes soon became the official academic attire. That tradition remains, although the more modern cap, gown and hood regalia are worn only for college and university commencement ceremonies and special events such as the inauguration of a campus president.
When hoods were first used at Oxford, they were lined with fur in the winter and with silk during the warmer seasons so they could serve as head covering, shoulder capes, and bags to collect alms for the church.
Oxford's gowns remain among the most colorful today; students and faculty at each college wear different-colored robes, as opposed to the standard black gowns that most American undergraduates wear.
In colonial America, King's College (now Columbia University) was among the first to use academic costume in graduation ceremonies. Only in 1887 did an American firm begin to manufacture the costumes.
Gardner Cotrell Leonard, an 1887 graduate of Williams College, designed and produced the costumes for his class. He subsequently researched costumes and heraldry in Europe, then founded Cotrell and Leonard, a firm that has manufactured the academic ceremonial attire ever since.
In 1895, Leonard helped an Intercollegiate Commission draft a costume code to regulate the design of academic attire. The American Council on Education has revised that code twice (in 1932 and 1959); colleges and universities throughout the United States follow the code's guidelines.
The modern undergraduate gown has pointed sleeves, is worn closed, and is generally black. At some schools, the lining of the hood denotes the academic subject studied. For example, an agriculture student may wear maize, a nursing student apricot, an education graduate light blue, and a law grad purple. Natural resource students sport hoods that are russet. A few schools, including Cornell and Harvard universities, use robes that incorporate their school colors.
Bachelors' costumes often dispense with the hood (as does U-M), but men must wear a mortarboard—a stiff, four-cornered hat; women may choose between the mortarboard and a soft, square cap.
Gowns worn by master's degree candidates typically have oblong sleeves that can be worn open or closed. Doctoral gowns often are silk with bell shaped sleeves and colored trim, and they often have velvet panels on the front, and velvet crossbars on the sleeves. The master's hood is 42 inches long, while the doctoral hood is 48 inches.
Many universities vary the costumes slightly, by changing the color or the style of the trim, but much of the original code remains in effect today.