The history of graduation gowns

Friday, May 16, 2008 | 3:00 p.m. CDT; updated 4:16 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Colleges in Columbia are approaching that time of year when seniors shed their past and step into their future.

Graduation is a closing chapter in many lives, and yet few know the meaning of the clothes worn on graduation day.


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Although graduating seniors may not know the history of academic robes, Darrell Jason Jordan says the apparel gives him a sense of accomplishment.

“It makes it feel less like a boring ceremony and more like a rite of passage.” he says.

In the past 12 months MU has sold 3,200 bachelor and master’s garments. It has sold 53 gowns and 86 hoods for doctoral graduates and faculty, as well as renting 760 gowns and hoods to the doctoral candidates and faculty.

So why do graduates wear such odd-looking costumes? Here is a primer on academic regalia:

The robe or gown

The gown graduates now don originated in the 13th century in Europe and was at the time known as the houpland. This unusually named garment got its start as a fashionable robe worn by men and women.

As universities began to spread, the fashion of the times became associated with academia.

No longer a fashion statement, today’s robes come in three types depending on the degree awarded.

Bachelor’s gowns have open sleeves, master’s gowns have oblong sleeves that open at the wrists and doctoral gowns have “bagpipe” sleeves.

The hood

The drape around a faculty member’s neck is called a hood.

Originally, it was called the liripipe and worn on the head as a turban, although it looked more like the hat worn by a court jester.

In order to don the hood, which hangs off the shoulders and down the back, graduates must obtain a master’s or doctoral degree.

Although both candidates wear hoods, a graduate is only “hooded” by an advisor when receiving a doctoral degree. There are four parts to the hood.

Velvet trim: Trim is located on the top inner half of the hood. Different degrees are associated with different colors, and the velvet trim is the color of the graduate’s degree.

Lining: The lining is beneath the velvet trim. The colors of the lining represent the colors of the university.

Chevron: The chevron is on the bottom inside half of the hood. It has the academic colors alongside the degree color.

Shell: The shell is the area that wraps around the outer edges of the entire hood. It is usually black and the same material as the cap and gown

The cowl

Graduates from colleges with associate degrees typically wear this cape-like attire. It functions in the same way as the hood, but unlike the hood, the cowl does not display the degree color. It has the individual institution’s colors with black on the outside.

The academic hat

These come in two different styles — the tam and the mortarboard.

The tam is a headpiece made with velvet often worn by doctoral graduates, (with a gold tassel) and some master graduates (with a black tassel).

Tams for master’s degrees usually have four sides, and tams for doctoral degrees have six to eight sides. Similar to a square beret, the tam leans to the side but has a poofed top and a tassel.

Mortarboards look more like a flat pizza box. These cardboard caps are used for bachelor’s graduates.

Unlike tams, mortarboards are not made with velvet. The tassel color represents the degree.

Tassel colors

On May 10, Stephens College celebrated its 175th year. Instead of wearing the usual black tassel, graduates elected to wear white.

At Columbia College, tassels are royal blue and MU’s tassels vary by department.

Although different schools use different colors, here is a standard list of colors associated with degrees.

Agriculture — maize

Arts, letters, humanities — white

Business — tan

Commerce, accountancy, business ­— drab

Dentistry — lilac

Economics — copper

Education — light blue

Engineering — orange

Fine Arts — brown

Forestry — russet

Journalism — crimson

Law — purple

Library science — lemon

Medicine — green

Music — pink

Nursing — apricot

Oratory (speech) — silver gray

Pharmacy — olive green

Philosophy — dark blue

Physical education — sage green

Public administration — peacock blue

Public health — salmon pink

Science — golden yellow

Social Work — citron

Theology — scarlet

Veterinary science — gray


Sources: Laurel E. Wilson, professor curator, Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection; Mark Cronan; Michelle Froese, MU Bookstore public relations manager; Darrell Jason Jordan graduating senior and psychology major; Annie Walsh, graduating senior and industrial engineering major; Aimee Paule, graduating MU biological chemistry major; Sarah Berghorn, Stephens College; Beth Frye, Columbia College, Campus Life

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Larry Mo September 29, 2008 | 10:54 a.m.

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(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 29, 2008 | 5:11 p.m.

Newsworthy or free advertisement?

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 29, 2008 | 5:21 p.m.

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