academic costume

man in academic gown

© Charlie Bishop |

United States

The current style of academic costume in the United States is barely a century old. Harvard used caps and gowns at its 250th Anniversary in 1886. The University of Michigan’s graduating class of 1894 was the first to wear caps and gowns for a commencement.

Gardner Cotrell Leonard, a freshman at Williams College, decided he could design better robes himself after watching seniors graduate in 1883.His family was in the dry goods business, and they made the gowns he designed for his own class’s graduation.

After graduation Leonard toured Europe to study academic costume there, and in time became the greatest single influence on American academic costume. The Cotrell and Leonard Company became and remains to this day a major supplier of academic robes.

The master’s gown Leonard designed was adapted from the informal gown worn by doctors at Oxford University. The doctor’s gown was “an Oxford bachelor of arts gown with trim from Cambridge undergraduate gowns.”

With Leonard as technical advisor, representatives of a number of colleges and universities met at Columbia University on May 16, 1895 and fashioned an Academic Costume Code. Revised slightly in 1932 and 1960 by the Intercollegiate Bureau of Academic Costumes (founded in 1902) and committees of the American Council on Education, this code is still in use. Not all institutions observe its guidelines; Harvard and St. Johns, for example, have never subscribed.

Gowns for the different degrees are distinguished, among other things, by the length of the hood and the width of its edging.

  bachelor master doctor
hood length 3 feet 3½ feet 4 feet
width of hood edging 2 inches 3 inches 5 inches

Most gowns are black (the doctor's gown of Harvard and a few others is in the institution’s color). Most line the hood with the institution's color. On bachelor’s and master’s gowns that is the only color.

Subject Colors

On doctor’s gowns, the wearer’s subject is indicated by the color of the trimming of the hood. In some institutions the facing on the front of the gown and the three bars across each sleeve (all in velvet, and only found on doctor’s gowns) and the tassel may also be the subject color.

Agriculture maize
Arts, Letters, Humanities white
Commerce, Accountancy, Business drab
Criminal Justice, Criminology midnight blue
Dentistry lilac
Economics copper
Education light blue
Engineering orange
Fine Arts, Architecture 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, Foreign Service peacock blue
Public Health salmon pink
Science, Mathematics golden yellow
Social Work citron
Theology scarlet
Veterinary Science gray

The following colors are unofficial:

Optometry sea green
Osteopathy green
Podiatry-Chiropody nile green
Social Science cream
Statistics light rose
Textiles rose

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