Graduating students were not the only ones dressed in cap and gown during Sunday’s commencement ceremony. Professors, deans and other members of GW’s faculty who have master’s or doctoral degrees were also covered from head to toe in academic regalia.
Rather than just a black on black robe and mortarboard cap adorned with buff and blue tassel, these distinguished faculty members wore hoods up to four feet long with colorful velvet trimming and silk lining. Some had stripes bracing their sleeves and wore tams, a soft cap alternative to the mortarboard.
Each decorative accessory is a personal reflection of the wearer’s academic journey, but more importantly, they become the colorful stitching that unites the distinguished members of an academic community.
For Jim Scott, dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, wearing his academic costume is his favorite part of Commencement. At first Scott said he bought his cap and gown because it looked cool, but the pomp and circumstance began to grow on him.
“I really like wearing regalia because there’s a feeling of being a part of the faculty and the University,” he said.
Academic costume finds its underpinnings in tradition. Its origins date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. The first specific regulations of academic costume originate from a statute of the University of Coimbra that required all degree-seeking students to wear gowns and during the time of Henry VIII, Oxford and Cambridge universities controlled every detail of academic dress, according to the American Council on Education’s academic costume code. However, it was not until the 19th century that universities in the United States adopted a specific code.
Hoods are supposed to be black in all cases, according to the ACE, with velvet trimming of four and five inches for master’s and doctor’s degrees respectively. If a person has more than one degree they can only wear one hood. The color depends on the degree the person is receiving. Each degree is assigned a color. For example an economics degree recipient would have a copper trimming while a fine arts degree would require a dark brown trimming.
Some colors have specific reasoning behind them. According to the ACE, white was assigned to arts and letters because of the white fur trimming of Oxford and Cambridge bachelor of arts hoods. Green, the color of medieval herbs, represents medical degrees, and golden yellow represents the sciences because of the wealth produced by scientific research.
The lining of the hoods, which are three and a half inches for master’s degrees and four inches for doctor’s degrees, are the university colors. So, GW graduates have buff and blue linings. Doctoral programs demand the most amount of research and longest years of study so their hoods grew over time in size to set them apart from the other degrees, according to the script read at GW’s doctoral hooding ceremony.
“Doctoral degrees became the most prominent to be awarded by any university..The hoods of their doctors have become to universities what flags are to nations,” according to the script.
Each gown has a slightly different shape, according to the ACE. The gown for the bachelor’s degree has pointed sleeves and is designed to be worn close, while the gown for the master’s degree has oblong sleeves and fasteners along the center so it can be worn open or closed. The doctoral gowns have bell shaped sleeves and can also be worn open or closed. The main difference between master’s and doctor’s gowns is the velvet chevrons along the sleeve and the velvet facing that runs down the front of the doctoral gown.
During the civil rights movements and at the tail end of the Vietnam War, a movement against academic costume arose. This led to a relaxing of protocol and in 1986, a commission of American colleges and universities met to revise the academic costume code. During the 1980s, academic costume made a favorable comeback.
Fred Lawrence, dean of the law school, said when he dons his hood that has a blue lining (because of his Yale law degree) with purple velvet trimming, and rounds the corner to where the graduates are sitting during Commencement he feels a sense of camaraderie.
“Wearing Commencement regalia is always an inspiring feeling that reconnects me to the time when I got my law degree,” said Lawrence. “Being part of the ceremony connects us all in a common venture.”