A gowning achievement: Graduation dress explained

Friday, December 13, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST
During commencement, students and faculty wear traditional academic regalia according to what degree they are receiving or have received.

COLUMBIA — If green brings out your eyes, you'd better be an MU School of Medicine graduate.

Each color and item a faculty member wears to commencement ceremonies signifies a department, degree level or achievement, right down to the gown's trimming and the hood's length.

Here's how to decode faculty members' academic attire, according to the MU commencement website and Darla Dyer, MU's gift and graduation buyer.

  • The hood: A 3 1/2-foot hood indicates a master's degree, while a hood 4 feet long means the wearer has earned a doctorate. The hood lining corresponds to the official colors of the university that awarded the degree, so MU graduates will have a black and gold lining.
  • The gown: The black gowns many faculty wear often have different-colored velvet trimmings, like purple for the School of Law or red for the School of Journalism. The gown's sleeves indicate the wearer's degree level; closed, pointed sleeves for a bachelor's degree, sleeves that are open at the wrist for a master's degree and bell-shaped sleeves for a doctorate.
  • The tassels: Faculty members wear tassels on the left side of their caps. The tassel's color depends on the school with which the member is associated. For example, the School of Nursing is apricot, the College of Engineering is orange and the College of Arts and Science is white.
  • The cap: Everyone can wear a mortarboard, the traditional graduation cap, but doctoral and professional graduates get the option to forgo a mortarboard for a tam, with looks like a floppy, cloth version of the mortarboard.

All these specialty items can rack up the price of a faculty member's attire.

Purchased through The Mizzou Store, a full graduation package for undergraduate students costs $54.99, but faculty members have the option to order custom-made, high-quality gowns with personalized embellishments and colored velvet that range from $149 to $659, Dyer said. Faculty can also rent their gowns each year.

Robe origins

Why do faculty look like they just stepped out of a time machine?

Probably because academic regalia traditions date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, according to Willsie Cap and Gown's history of academic dress. During this time, graduates and faculty from the first universities in Europe dressed like members of the clergy for commencement ceremonies.

Scholars often had their heads tonsured, or shaved, for the ceremony, so they wore hoods for warmth until graduation caps took over that job. Long robes kept them warm in unheated buildings. Scholars clearly weren't thinking about hot spring and summer graduation days in Missouri when they set that precedent.

Colors assigned to signify each discipline or field of study were not standardized until the late 19th century in the United States. According to Willsie Cap and Gown, which is where The Mizzou Store gets academic regalia, the original colors were:

  • Arts and letters: white, taken from the white fur trimming in hoods at University of Oxford and University of Cambridge
  • Theology: red, a traditional color of the church
  • Medicine: green, which was associated with herbs and medicines
  • Pharmacy: olive, a color close to green to signify pharmacy's connection to medicine
  • Science: golden yellow, to demonstrate the wealth the sciences have produced

Since the original color code was created, the American Council on Education created an official code for academic dress in 1932 that is still followed by most U.S. institutions today. The council made revisions to the code in 1959 and 1986.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey. 

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