Academic regalia date to European universities of the Middle Ages, when gowns and hoods were required for warmth in unheated buildings. Gowns were fur lined adaptations of the priestly toga, and hoods were worn to protect the tonsured heads of the priests. The regalia now serve as a visible reminder of the historic antecedents of intellectual pursuits.
In American universities of the late 19th century, these medieval costumes were revived to lend color to academic functions. Efforts were made to establish a code that would set standards for academic dress. Gowns of masters and doctors are generally ankle length and closed in front. The master’s gown has pointed sleeves that are slit at the elbows. The doctoral gown has wide lapels of velvet, either black or the color of the scholar’s specialization. The sleeves are full and bell shaped, with three velvet chevrons, either black or colored like the lapels. Gowns normally are black, although some universities have designed their own in the colors of the institution.
The hood, which drapes over the back of the gown, carries the greatest symbolism of all components of the academic costume. Its length, width and colors denote the wearer’s highest academic achievement and institution. The master’s hood is pointed; the doctoral hood is bell shaped. The color of the border of the hood indicates the scholar’s major field of study; the lining color or colors identifies the institution that conferred the wearer’s degree. Hoods were originally trimmed in fur, but now have satin borders for masters’ and velvet for doctors’ hoods.
The customary head covering is the mortarboard, or Oxford cap, with a tassel on the left side. Persons who possess the doctorate wear a tassel of gold metallic threads. The soft, large beret, modeled after the cap of Cambridge University, also has been adopted by some institutions.
The medieval university was much concerned with rank and privilege, and academic robes made visible the social and academic distinctions of the wearers. These distinctions have largely disappeared, and robes now indicate specialization.