What do all those different colors and gowns mean?
The custom of wearing academic gowns, hoods, and caps dates back to about the 12th century, when most scholars belonged to a religious order.
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Long gowns and hoods were standard dress for medieval clergy, who often studied and taught in cold buildings. The style and coloring of the robe, hood, and, sometimes, skull cap denoted an educated individual. From the end of the 16th century to the present, members of the clergy, law professionals, and academics have worn robes.
Sometime in the 14th century, English universities began to use the dress to distinguish levels of education. Modeled on the English system, the American Academic Costume Code was established in 1895 by a commission of delegates from the Ivy League and New York universities.
The Costume Code calls for three types of gowns: doctoral, master’s, and bachelor’s. The doctoral gown is the most elaborate, with front-facing velvet and three velvet bars on each of the full, billowing sleeves. The velvet can be black, PhD blue, or the academic color to which the degree corresponds. The master’s gown is distinctive for its extremely long, closed sleeves, the arms protruding through a slit at the elbow. The bachelor’s gown is the simplest of the three, a plain gown with long, pointed sleeves.
Doctoral and master’s degrees are also indicated by a hood, distinctive in shape, size, and color. The doctor’s hood is easily recognizable, with wide velvet edging that indicates the degree earned and full exposure of the lining. The master’s hood is the same length as the doctor’s hood but does not fully expose the lining, and the velvet edging is not as wide. For both hoods, the lining indicates the colors of the institution conferring the degree.
Mortarboards, the distinctive four-pointed caps, are worn by academics at all levels. In recent years, doctors have taken to wearing a soft velvet tam instead.
The significance of insignia
The following is a brief list of common colors used by the Academic Costume Code to denote field of study: