The colorful academic apparel worn at inaugurations, academic convocations and commencement ceremonies has its origins in the Middle Ages, when scholars at European universities wore hoods and gowns as their daily attire. Since there was a close tie between early universities and the Catholic Church, it is not surprising that academic gowns resembled cassocks and elaborately worked clerical vestments.
The hood is the most striking part of the attire; originally, it was used as a cowl, cape and—when hung from the shoulder—a sack to collect alms. Legend has it that the cape section of the hood was cut open when large wigs were in vogue, and a narrow neckband was inserted in the front. The cape and hood then fell back clear of the wig. Although wigs are no longer in fashion, this hood style continues today, with the narrow end of the hood shaped as a neckband connecting the two halves of the cape.
The American fashion of academic caps and gowns comes mainly from the gowns worn at Oxford University in England. The earliest bachelor's hoods at Oxford were lined with fur; noblemen and masters wore hoods with miniver or silk linings in the summer. Although the mortarboard cap came into popular use in the 16th century, the cap's origins are clouded. Some believe it is shaped to resemble a book; others claim the cap is fashioned to resemble the mortarboards of the master craftsman or the quadrangle shape of the Oxford campus. The mortarboard usually has a black tassel, with a gold tassel signifying a doctoral degree.
Caps and gowns have been worn at American universities since colonial times, but it was not until 1885 that they became customary at commencements. By 1895 a code for academic costume was established and approved by a vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States. In accordance with that code, the academic attire reflects the level of an individual's degree and the institution granting that degree.
Gowns for the three levels of degrees are distinguished mainly by sleeve length. Bachelors wear a closed gown with a long, pointed sleeve while masters usually wear their gowns open with square-cut sleeves and an arc cut out near the hem. The doctor's gown features large, bell-shaped sleeves with three velvet crossbars on the upper portion of the arm and velvet trim down the gown's front.
The hood indicates the level of degree attained in addition to the academic field and the granting institution. The colored lining of the hood identifies the institution conferring the degree; this lining may have a single color or several colorful stripes or chevrons. The bachelor's hood is three-feet long and has a three-inch border. The hood for a master is three-and-a-half feet long and has a three-inch border. Doctors wear a four-foot-long hood with a five-inch border. The color of the velvet trim bordering the hood indicates the field of learning in which the degree is earned.
In the academic procession, an individual usually wears the apparel appropriate to the highest degree he or she holds. Members of the board of trustees, however, may wear doctoral gowns, and individuals officially representing an institution wear a gown appropriate to that role. Military uniforms and religious habits are acceptable apparel. Some institutions of higher education have now adopted solid color gowns that incorporate their university/college colors.