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 Home > Shopping > Graduation Caps, Gowns, Accessories, Honor Stoles & more ... > Graduation Caps and Gowns > Academic Regalia > Do you know why we wear caps and gowns at graduation?

Do you know why we wear caps and gowns at graduation?

Do you know why we wear caps and gowns at graduation?

No? Then read on,

In the often unheated buildings of the middle ages, long gowns were necessary for scholars to ward off the cold.

Academic dress for graduations started in the 12th and 13th centuries when universities first began forming. Whether a student or a teacher, standard dress for scholars was clerical garb. Most medieval scholars had made certain vows, and had at least taken minor orders with the church so clerical robes were their main form of dress to begin with.

n 1321, the University of Coimbra mandated that all Doctors, Bachelors, and Licentiates must wear gowns. In the latter half of the 14th century, excess in apparel was forbidden in some colleges and prescribed wearing a long gown. By the time of England's Henry VIII, Oxford and Cambridge began using a standard form of academic dress, which was controlled to the tiniest detail by the university.

Not until the late 1800s were colors assigned to signify certain areas of study, but they were only standardized in the United States. European institutions have always had diversity in their academic dress, but American institutions employ a definite system of dress thanks to Gardner Cotrell Leonard from Albany, New York. After designing gowns for his 1887 class at Williams College, he took an interest in the subject and published an article on academic dress in 1893. Soon after he was asked to work with an Intercollegiate Commission to form a system of academic apparel.

The system Gardner Cotrell Leonard helped form was based on gown cut, style and fabric; as well as designated colors to represent fields of study. For example green was the color of medieval herbs, and was assigned to medical studies. Because olive is close to green, was designated for pharmaceutical studies.

In 1959, the American Council on Education had a Committee on Academic Costumes and Ceremonies review the costume code and make changes. In 1986, the committee changed the code to clarify the use of dark blue for a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


  • The shape and size of the hood and the sleeve design of the gown show the degree a student pursued: a Bachelor's Degree gown has pointed sleeves and no hood, a Master's Degree gown had long, closed sleeves with arm slits and a narrow hood, and a Doctor's Degree had bell-shaped sleeves and a draped, wide hood.
  • The color of the hood's lining tells which college or university the degree was given by. For example: Harvard is crimson, Temple is cherry and white, and Cornell is purple and white. However, other than the lining, the hood must be black.
  • The field of study is designated by the color of the hood's facing. For example: Theology is scarlet, Arts Letters and Humanities are white, and Music is pink.
  • Caps should only be made of black cotton poplin, broadcloth, rayon, or silk, to match gown they are to be used with. Velvet may only be used for a doctor's degree.
  • Tassels should be fastened to the middle of the cap's top and allowed to lie where it will. It should be black, or the color of field of study, unless it is for a doctor's degree in which case is may be gold.


What is the Significance of the Honors Apparel? A question frequently asked of us is "What do the honors cords (or stole or medallion) mean?"

The answer is that here is no clear-cut precedent throughout the educational establishment for any of the honors items. They mean different things to many different people and in many different places. As a general rule, honors cords have historically represented membership in some kind of a society or club, most commonly an honors society. But on a college undergraduate level, they are often used today to designate a level of grade point average for the graduate, sometimes with different colors of cords indicating various levels of academic achievement.

What we have seen is a trend toward "dumbing down" the honors apparel. We know that there are a number of high schools who purchase honor cords for each student. Everyone wears them; they are merely a decoration. The same is true of the honors stole (also called a sash). Sometimes today everyone will wear a stole and those with some special honors may have theirs embroidered or printed, while the rest are plain. Some high schools award honors cords for "participation," with a given number of points for attendance at certain events. Obviously, in many cases the use of honors apparel has gone the way of much of the educational establishment!

People often say "What do you suggest?"

If you are planning a graduation for a home school group or a small school and there has never been a clear decision about what honors apparel may be worn, we suggest that you make a determination of what the various items mean within your establishment. Publish it in the program so that everyone knows what those items stand for, and then stick with it from year to year. Consistency is the important thing in a situation where there isn't really any "guidebook" to follow. If a family has a graduate one year who earns a level of distinction which is recognized at the ceremony, and then two years later, a younger sibling who has not achieved nearly the same level, is honored in the same way, confusion results. Those attending, and especially the students themselves, will feel that the honors are arbitrary.

The same is true of a single-family ceremony. Decide what you wish to honor your student for and then be consistent with the next graduate. Academic achievement does not have to be measured by grade point level --ACT or SAT scores could be used as a standard. Nor is academic achievement the only criterion. Parents might want to make it a part of the ceremony to award a stole, a medal, or set of cords in recognition of a particular character quality or achievement of excellence in an area of their son or daughter's life.

We suggest that you set standards are for achievement and honors, and then be consistent. We encourage you to set high standards and honor true excellence.

HOODING CEREMONY" How to Properly Wear the Academic Hood Now that you have earned your degree and the right to wear the proper academic hood, we want to be sure you wear it correctly.

  1. The hood should be placed over your head so that it drapes off your shoulders and over the back of your gown. The velvet border should be on the outside as shown in the picture.

  2. Be sure the lining of the hood is turned out so that the color(s) identifying the institution which conferred your degree are prominently displayed. This can be done by turning the velvet trim to the outside at the back just below your shoulders. The cord on the back of your hood will keep your hood in place.

  3. A cord in the front of your hood is provided to keep the hood away from your neck. Fasten the cord to a shirt or dress button.

  4. Make sure the black base (shell) of the hood is smoothed down and lays flat against the back of your robe.
  5. Doctoral Hooding Instructions:
    The hooding string or loopcord is located at the narrowest part of the velvet portion of the hood   The hooding string or loopcord Hood showing fluffed colors
    • Students will hand the hoods to a hooder.
    • With the hooding strings ("loopcord" on the velvet portion of the hood, see image at right and above) DOWN, two faculty members will carefully place the hoods over the student's head, being careful not to dislodge caps.
    • Next, the faculty members will quickly fluff out the colors on the back of the hood (see image below), and congratulate the student.

    • Faculty members should be seated when all students have been hooded.
    • For students attending without a faculty member: Hand your hood to one of the College Hooders who will place it over your head, fluff out the colors, and congratulate you.

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