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Academic dress or academical dress is traditional clothing worn specifically in academic settings. It is more commonly seen nowadays only at graduation ceremonies, but in former times academic dress was, and to a lesser extent in many ancient universities still is, worn on a daily basis. This article deals chiefly with academic dress in the English-speaking world.
Academic dress in most universities in the Commonwealth is derived from the academic dress of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which themselves are a development of academic and clerical dress common throughout the medieval universities of Europe. In the United States, however, academic dress has also been influenced by the academic dress of continental Europe.
Academic dress today generally consists of a gown, hood and sometimes a cap (either a mortarboard or a bonnet). When wearing academic dress, it is usual to dress formally and soberly beneath the gown; so, for example, males would typically wear a dark lounge suit with a white shirt and tie, or military or national dress, and females would wear equivalent attire.
British academic dress
The modern gown is derived from the roba worn under the cappa clausa, a garment resembling a long black cape. In early medieval times, all students at the universities were in at least minor orders, and were required to wear the cappa or other clerical dress, and restricted to clothes of black or other dark colour.
The gowns most commonly worn, that of the Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Master of Arts (MA), are substantially the same throughout the English-speaking world. Both are traditionally made of black stuff, or cloth, (although occasionally the gown is dyed in one of the college's colors) and have the material at the back of the gown gathered into a yoke. The BA gown has bell-shaped sleeves, while the MA gown has long sleeves closed at the end, with the arm passing through a slit above the elbow. In the Commonwealth, gowns are worn open, while in the United States it has become common for gowns to close at the front, as did the original roba.
Undergraduates at many older universities also wear gowns; the most common is a smaller knee-length version of the BA gown. In some ancient Scottish universities the undergraduate's gown is red.
Dress and Undress
Since medieval times, doctors, like bishops and cardinals, have been authorised to wear garments of brighter colours such as scarlet, purple or red. In many older universities, doctors have scarlet dress gowns or robes which are worn on special occasions (for example, at graduation ceremonies and on certain festivals of the Christian calendar), as well as a black undress gowns which is worn on ordinary occasions. In Oxford, as well as full dress and undress gowns, there is a third form of dress, the Convocation habit or chemir, which is a scarlet sleeveless garment worn over the black gown, with the sleeves of the gown pulled through the armholes of the chemir. This is worn at meetings of Convocation or Congregation, including at degree ceremonies by non-graduands.
The academic cap or square, commonly known as the "mortarboard", has come to be symbolic of academia, and can be worn by graduates and undergraduates alike. It is a flat square hat with a tassel suspended from a button in the top center of the board. Properly worn, the cap is parallel to the ground, though some people, especially women, wear it angled back.
The mortarboard may also be referred to as a trencher cap (or simply trencher). In many universities, holders of doctorates wear a soft rounded headpiece known as a Tudor bonnet, rather than a trencher.
As with other forms of headgear, academic caps are not generally worn indoors by men (other than by the Chancellor or other high officials), but are usually carried. In some graduation ceremonies caps have been dispensed of altogether for men, being issued only to women, who do wear them indoors. This has led to urban legends in a number of universities in the United Kingdom which have as a common theme that idea that the wearing of the cap was abandoned in protest at the admission of women to the university. This story is told at the University of Cambridge, the University of Bristol, the University of Durham, and the University of St Andrews, among others.
The hood was originally a functional civilian garment, worn to shield the head from the elements. In the English tradition, it has developed to an often bright and decorative garment worn only on special occasions. It is also worn by the clergy of the Church of England in choir dress over the surplice.
The traditional hood consists of a cape and a cowl, as in the full Cambridge shape. In Oxford, the bachelors' and masters' hoods have lost their cape. Various other British universities have different shapes and patterns of hoods, in some cases corresponding to the pattern current at the ancient universities at the time when they were founded, and in others representing a completely new design.
The colour and lining of hoods in academic dress represents the status of the wearer. In many Commonwealth universities bachelors wear hoods edged or lined with white rabbit fur, while masters wear hoods lined with coloured silk (originally ermine or other expensive fur). Doctors' hoods are normally made of scarlet cloth and lined with coloured silk. Undergraduates do not normally wear hoods, but some have adopted the black unlined literates' hood worn by Anglican clergymen without degrees.
As well as deriving from British academic dress, academic dress in the United States has been influenced by the academic dress traditions of continental Europe. There is an Inter-Collegiate code which sets out a detailed uniform scheme of academic dress, but not all colleges follow it.
Bachelors' and masters' gowns in the United States are similar to their counterparts in the United Kingdom, but are worn closed.
Doctoral robes are typically black, although some schools use robes in the school's colors. In general, doctoral gowns are similar to the gowns worn by master's graduates, with the addition of velvet stripes across the sleeves and running down the front of the gown, tinted with the disciplinary color for the degree received. The robes have full sleeves trimmed with bands of velvet instead of the bell sleeves of the master's gown. Some gowns open more at the front to display a tie or cravat, while others take an almost cape-like form.
In the US, academic dress is rarely worn outside commencement ceremonies. In many American schools, the color of the hood represents the school or department that the wearer is graduating from. A number of other items, cords or sashes, may be also seen worn, representing various academic achievements.
The tassel worn on the mortarboard may indicate the university's colors, or the colors of the specific college or discipline from which the student is graduating. There is in some universities a practice of moving the tassel from one side to the other on graduating, but this is a modern innovation which would be impractical out of doors due to the vagaries of the wind. However, this mark of transition to graduate status has the benefit of taking less time than more traditional indicators such as the conferring of the hood (which is done at some Scottish universities), or a complete change of dress partway through the ceremony (as at Oxford).
The colors allocated to the various academic disciplines have been largely standardized, and are:
The following articles describe in more detail on the academic dress schemes and usages of various universities:
Academic dress of the University of London
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