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A Brief Guide on the History of Graduation Gowns

A Brief Guide on the History of Graduation Gowns

Graduation ceremonies are celebrated globally, with academic dress playing a large role in acknowledging the achievements of the people wearing them. The tradition of wearing robes started hundreds of years ago and has carried on to this very day. In this brief guide, we take a look into the history of graduation gowns to understand why a practice from so long ago is still so important even today. 

Academic Dress History – Where it Started

Just as other traditions evolve and change over the years, graduation gowns, caps and accessories are no exception, with adjustments to style and practicality happening over time. 

Early gowns were worn on top of cassocks and were weighty garments to keep out the cold. The first specifically academic item of dress used in medieval universities was the cappa clausa, a large sleeveless cloak with an opening in the front for hands for dons worn over a gown. In the sixteenth century, Oxford and Cambridge abandoned this cloak in favour of the gown alone, which was open in front and had long sleeves. 

Hoods were originally used as separate headwear with a cape covering the shoulder and a long tail - called a liripipe - that fell down from the back of the head. From the fifteenth century, the hood ceased to be a head covering as hats, ruffs, and wigs made them impractical so it laid on the shoulders, and the liripipe draped down the back.

Changes in Shapes and Colours of Gowns

The shape and colour of gowns and hoods came to be strictly regulated as a remnant of the medieval and Tudor 'sumptuary laws.' These were rules which limited who could wear certain colours and accoutrements such as swords, ruffs and cloaks. Being a royal colour, Scarlet was confined to judges, bishops, and the highest university officials, including the holders of doctor's degrees. Other gowns were required to be black. 

Over time, the shape and colour of gowns and hoods were defined for specific degrees, such as BA, MA and doctorates. At Oxford and Cambridge, bachelors of arts wore gowns with wide, open sleeves and hoods that were black with white fur lining. Masters graduates wore black gowns with Tudor or 'bag' sleeves, from which arms emerged at the elbow and the remainder of the sleeve draped to the floor, ending in a square. Masters graduates were allowed to wear hoods that were lined with more costly silk (rather than fur). On their heads, they wore hats that often took a square shape, either a 'mortarboard' or another form of square cap.

When discussing the history of graduation gowns, it's important to remember that from the Reformation until 1822, there were only two universities in England, four in Scotland and Trinity College in Dublin. But in the last two hundred years, many more colleges and universities were established, and each was allowed the privilege of determining what academic dress their graduates would wear. 

There were four distinct phases in the foundation of modern universities: 

1. The early nineteenth-century foundations 

- St David's College, Lampeter (1822)

- the University of Durham (1832)

- University College London and King's College London (1828-9)

2. Large civic universities 

E.g. Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Sheffield, Wales, Belfast

3. The 'Redbrick' universities 

E.g. Bristol, Nottingham, Reading

4. The modern universities

These include those polytechnics that were granted university status in 1992. 

Since 2000 over a dozen colleges of higher education have also gained university status. Many royal colleges (such as medical colleges), institutes, and learned societies also require academic dress for graduations and ceremonies.

How the History of Academic Dress Still Affects Us

Today, most universities have adopted the style of bachelors' and masters' gowns used at Oxford and Cambridge, and some followed the tradition that bachelors have fur on their hoods and masters have silk. 

But naturally, with over 140 universities in the UK, many different colours and styles have developed. Some universities, like Portsmouth and the University of Manchester (2005), have adopted purple as a colour 'theme' for their corporate design and academic dress. Some, like Keele, use it for their doctoral robes. Other universities like Aston, Glamorgan and Brighton have adopted cloth on their gowns and hoods in which their arms or logos are woven.

The history of graduation gowns tells a story of adaptation. It shows the importance of tradition reflected in the number of institutions that still adhere to having academic attire for graduation ceremonies. Moreover, even as home graduation ceremonies become increasingly popular, graduates are still opting to hire and buy graduation attire for photographs and mark their achievements. 

Should you require any assistance in finding your own graduation academic dress for a ceremony at home or a venue, please contact our friendly team of experts. 

Special thanks to The Burgon Society, who promote the study of academic dress in all its aspects. Marston Robing Limited is proud to be a corporate member of the Burgon Society.