Every year around this time, graduating students in the United States walk across hastily constructed stages and awkwardly shake hands with their university’s president before receiving a diploma. B.A. recipients sport black gowns, mortarboards, and tassels while master’s candidates don long-hanging, Tudor-sleeved robes and doctoral candidates readjust to natural light in tams and triple-striped sleeves. Everyone gets some kind of hood. Why do graduates wear such ridiculous get-ups?
It’s a hangover trend from the Middle Ages. Standard fashion around 1100 and 1200 A.D. dictated long, flowing robes and hoods for warmth; the greater a person’s wealth, the higher the quality of the fabrics. This attire went out of style around the Renaissance. But sumptuary laws, often designed to prevent people from dressing above their class, kept academics (who were relatively low in the social hierarchy) in simple, unostentatious robes through the 16th century. Thereafter, academics and students at many universities wore robes for tradition’s sake. At Oxford, robes were de rigueur until the 1960s and are still required at graduation and during exams.
When American universities sprang up in the 17th and 18th centuries, they adopted many Oxbridge academic traditions, including robe-wearing. At some institutions, such as Princeton, Yale, and King’s College—now Columbia—students were required to wear them at all times. At King’s, this dress code made it easier to identify students in the hopes of keeping them away from the houses of prostitution and gambling that were just around the corner from campus. Disrobement was a form of punishment. King’s College President Myles Cooper’s notorious “Black Book of Misdemeanours” includes an account of a student caught stealing paper and a pen knife. Administrators stripped him of his gown in front of fellow students and banned him from wearing it for a week.
The use of academic robes in the United States waned at the beginning of the 19th century, and after around 1810, most American colleges and universities used them only at formal academic ceremonies, if at all. Robes were optional at Columbia’s commencement from the 1830s until the 1880s, and most students didn’t even bother with them. The tradition seemed on the cusp of extinction, but in the second half of the 19th century, there was a—somewhat mysterious—renewed interest in academic regalia. Perhaps this was a result of the fact that, with the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, there were simply more universities and more students, which may have piqued curiosity about academic tradition. Or perhaps, as with all fashion trends, robes came and went only to return again in force. Graduation robes may also have been promoted for their positive, democratizing effect: The tradition forced students of different classes to wear the same apparel. And at some colleges, renting a robe was significantly cheaper than renting a suit.
Robe designs and hood color—used to signify the type of degree conferred—differed slightly from school to school through the 19th century, so in 1895 an Intercollegiate Commission was called at Columbia to standardize graduation garb. The results were subsequently adopted and expanded upon by the American Council on Education, which specifies, among other things, that doctoral gowns should have bell-shaped sleeves and fasteners so that they can be worn open or closed. There’s at least one college in the United States, the College of Charleston, that has never required robes at graduation. Instead, female students wear white dresses, and male students wear white dinner jackets during commencement.
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Explainer thanks Stephen Wolgast of Kansas State University.