Gowns have been associated with academia since the birth of the university in the 14th and 15th centuries, perhaps because most early scholars were priests or church officials. Over time, the gowns worn by degree-holders have become standardized to some extent, although traditions in individual countries and even institutions have established a diverse range of gown styles, and some have ended the custom entirely, even for graduation ceremonies.
At some universities, such as the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, undergraduates may be required to wear gowns on formal occasions and on graduation. Undergraduate gowns are usually a shortened version of a bachelor's gown. At other universities, for example, outside the UK or U.S., the custom is entirely absent. Students at the University of Trinity College at the University of Toronto wear gowns to formal dinner, debates, to student government, and to many other places.
In general, in the U.S. and UK recipients of a bachelor's degree are entitled to wear a simple full-length robe without adornment and a mortarboard cap with a tassel. In addition, holders of a bachelor's degree may be entitled to wear a ceremonial hood at some schools. In the U.S., bachelor's hoods are rarely seen. Bachelor's hoods are generally smaller versions of those worn by recipients of master's and doctoral degrees.
Recipients of a master's degree in the U.S. or UK wear a similar cap and gown but closed sleeves with slits, and usually receive a ceremonial hood that hangs down the back of the gown. In the U.S. the hood is traditionally edged with a silk or velvet strip displaying the disciplinary color, and is lined with the university's colors.
According to The American Council on Education “six-year specialist degrees (Ed.S., etc.) and other degrees that are intermediate between the master's and the doctor's degree may have hoods specially designed (1) intermediate in length between the master's and doctor's hood, (2) with a four-inch velvet border (also intermediate between the widths of the borders of master's and doctor's hoods), and (3) with color distributed in the usual fashion and according to the usual rules. Cap tassels should be uniformly black.”
Recipients of a doctoral degree tend to have the most elaborate academic dress, and hence there is the greatest diversity at this level. In the U.S., doctoral gowns are similar to the gowns worn by master's graduates, with the addition of velvet stripes across the sleeves and running down the front of the gown which may be tinted with the disciplinary color for the degree received. Holders of a doctoral degree may be entitled or obliged to wear scarlet (a special gown in scarlet) on high days and special occasions. While some doctoral graduates wear the mortarboard cap traditional to the lower degree levels, most wear a cap or Tudor bonnet that resembles a tam o'shanter, from which a colored tassel is suspended.
In modern times in the U.S. and UK, gowns are normally only worn at graduation ceremonies, although some colleges still demand the wearing of academic dress on formal occasions (official banquets and other similar affairs). In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was more common to see the dress worn in the classroom, a practice which has now all but disappeared. Two notable exceptions are Oxford and a society at Sewanee, where students are required to wear formal academic dress in the examination room.
Read more about this topic: Academia
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