The history and pageantry of academic regalia goes back to the medieval universities of Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. Gowns were everyday dress, providing for their wearers not only distinction but also warmth during long hours of study in poorly heated buildings.
Academic life as we know it today began in the church and then spread throughout the guilds. The teaching guild was the guild of the master of arts, where the bachelor was the apprentice of the master; the dress was the outward sign of privilege and responsibility. It became necessary for universities to set rules to preserve the dignity and meaning of their academic dress or regalia. Since the 15th century both Cambridge and Oxford universities in England have made academic dress a matter of university control, even to its minor details, and have repeatedly published revised regulations.
Although academic regalia is seen only at such formal affairs as commencement, dedication ceremonies, and inaugural exercises on American campuses today, it has been governed by an Academic Costume Code, established in 1895 and revised by the American Council of Education from time to time.
When the Academic Costume Code is followed, it is possible to identify the highest degree which the wearer holds, the college or university that awarded it, and the course of study which it represents. The distinguishing features are the cut of the gown, the color of the tassel on the cap, and the lengths and colors of the hood.
The gowns have three distinctive sleeves: long sleeves for the bachelor's gown; longer closed sleeves with arm slits at the elbow for the master's gown; and bell-shaped sleeves extending to the wrist for the doctor's gown. The bachelor's gown, usually black in color, is worn closed; the master's gown, also most frequently black, is worn open or closed, depending partly upon its tailoring; and the doctor's gown, either black or of the official colors of the degree granting university, is worn open or closed, depending on the preference of its wearer. The bachelor's and master's gowns have no trimming; the doctor's gown is faced down the front with velvet and has three bars of velvet across the sleeves. This velvet trim is either black, or is a color adopted by the university granting the doctor's degree, or is the color associated with the discipline to which the degree pertains.
A cap is worn with each type of gown. The bachelor's cap has a stiff, square flat top known as a 'mortarboard'; its tassel is either black or is a color associated with the wearer's degree. The master's cap is identical to the bachelor's cap, but the tassel is almost always black. The doctor's cap, ordinarily black, is either a 'mortarboard' or a soft, cushion-like design; the tassel is either black or gold.
The hood is of three lengths: three feet for the bachelor's hood, three and one-half feet for the master's hood, and four feet for the doctor's hood. The color of the velvet edging, which is wider for the higher degrees than for the bachelor's hood, indicates the subject area in which the degree pertains. In addition to the colored edging, the hood shows in its lining the official colors of the college or university which awarded the degree. The hood is worn in such a way that a large part of the lining is visible.
In nearly every academic procession there will appear a few costumes which do not conform to the standard patterns described above. Gold braid is sometimes added to the gowns of academic administrators and trustees; the color of the trustees' gowns may be specified by the college. Many faculties include a few members who hold degrees from foreign universities, some of which prescribe very colorful regalia of varying designs.
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