The History and Meaning of Caps, Gowns & Graduation Attire

Academic dress and graduation date back to the 12th century at the formation of early Universities in Europe . The role of these early Universities was to authenticate degrees. Universities documented which scholars had enrolled, or matriculated, for study under licensed masters and established standards to mark the various levels of a student’s progress (graduation) toward the next degree. Universities lacked buildings of their own when they were first established and thus studies were conducted at nearby churches. Historians believe that academic dress originated when scholars, who were largely clerics or aspiring clerics in the church themselves, wore long robes and hoods to keep warm in these unheated buildings. The practice of wearing gowns became more widespread when gowns were established as the official dress of academics in 1321 and “excess in apparel” was frowned upon. Variations on the long gowns, hoods worn for warmth were later used by Universities to differentiate and recognize the various grades of scholars. The guidelines for dress at these institutions was and continues to be very diverse since a governing body does not exist in Europe. Representatives of American institutions however, gathered in 1895 and established a body known as the Intercollegiate Commission to standardize the practice of academic dress. These guidelines are often referred to as the Intercollegiate Code with the most recent revision taking place in 1986.

In determining patterns for gowns and hoods as well as appropriate degree color assignments for various subjects of study, Herff Jones and Collegiate Apparel utilize the academic codes set by the Intercollegiate Commission. To learn more about these academic costume codes/guidelines, visit the ACE website.Their site provides some abbreviated information about the history of regalia, details about the standards and discussion of the flexibility of the guidelines.

To obtain in depth information about the history of organized education and graduation, we also recommend the following websites:


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Gown Differences by Degree

Each degree level equates to differences in the gown to be worn. Bachelor gowns have standard sleeves. Master gowns have unique and oblong shaped sleeves with wrist openings. Doctoral gowns have bell sleeves with velvet chevrons on the sleeves and velvet on the panels.


Degree Color Meaning

Academic Degree colors are utilized in the velvet trim of an Academic Hood. The satin lining of a hood is respective to the academic institution attended.


Cap & Gown Etiquette

How should the cap be worn and how do you tell the front from the back? How should the gown be pressed before the ceremony? These questions and more are answered here.