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Why Do We Have Graduation Regalia?

Many people have wondered what the purpose of graduation regalia actually is. Other than a matter of tradition, what could impel people to dress in what appear at first glance to be slightly silly and impractical outfits just to be recognized for their academic achievements? This is actually a very old tradition that stems from a number of sources and provides clues as to a person’s relative accomplishments at a simple glance. While it is based largely in custom, it is a rich one that connects graduates to centuries of learning.

Where Graduation Regalia Came From

Everything from the simple cap and gown to the doctoral hood is drawn from the early European universities that began to form in the twelfth century and started replacing apprenticeship as the sole means of learning. Since practical arts were still dominated by the master/apprentice relationship, universities were mostly a route into the clergy for young men, often the third or higher son of minor nobles who knew they were unlikely to gain any inheritance.

One of the first things that the universities did was establish various levels of knowledge that could be demonstrated on a scale, with “doctors” being at the top. These “grades” of learning were soon necessary to signify visually, especially in a time period where visual signifiers such as coats of arms were so prevalent, so the clerical robes that were worn for warmth in the often unheated buildings where these scholars met started to change to make it clear what level of learning the wearer had attained.

When one moved from a grade of learning to a higher one, a process known as “graduation,” they would receive new clothing to reflect the level of knowledge they possessed. In many cases, due to sumptuary laws and the rules of the Church that discouraged “excess in apparel,” these changes were subtle, but those ensconced in academic circles could at least recognize their own university’s system with ease.

Types of Regalia

Today, graduation regalia is wore almost exclusively for graduation ceremonies rather than as a uniform to mark academic progress. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t specific types worn by those who attend these ceremonies on a regular basis.

Bachelors of a particular study often wear plain gowns with standard sleeves. Sometimes pleating is used, but otherwise these gowns are very simple and come with a mortarboard cap. Masters of a discipline are expected to have oblong sleeves with wrist openings and may wear a tam instead of a mortarboard if they are professors. Doctors have bell sleeves and are allowed certain colors based on their field of study, not to mention velvet panels and a hood.

GraduationMall can help guide you through the rules of graduation regalia and pick the high quality uniform to signify your academic achievement.