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Procession from Brasenose College to the Sheldonian Theatre on Broad Street led by the Chancellor of Oxford University. Image: Chris Patten

A very brief history of academic dress

With graduation season approaching, academics and students will soon don caps and sweeping gowns. The contrast between the gravity of academic rank and odd costumery can be startling; you respect a Dean but find it hard to reconcile that with – despite its grandiosity – their clownish velvet Tudor bonnet.

The New York Times, in 1896, took a different approach to this garb.

The popular mind would hardly associate with the persons of college professors any particular gorgeousness of apparel; yet in the caps, gowns, and hoods which they wear on ceremonial occasions there are such a diversity of colors and richness of material as to create more than passing notice.

In the Middle Ages, however, such elaborate dress wasn’t worth appraising – it was standard. Established by the Catholic clergy from the 12th century onward, European universities demanded that their monk scholars were robed accordingly. With their brown or black gowns and hoods, they embodied the ‘town and gown’ distinction. But their dress didn’t just signify religious status; it protected shaved-headed wearers from the damp chill of universities’ cathedral or monastery environs.

Unlike codified academic regalia today, then, it was more ad-hoc. Alms bags became hoods, and people added layers for warmth. Yet in the late 14th century, things began to change. In England, some colleges proscribed ‘excessive apparel’ and mandated the wearing of long gowns. Then, during the 16th century reign of Henry VIII, Oxford and Cambridge adopted official dress codes.

As modernity beckoned, uniforms dissolved. Hoods became skullcaps, which eventually morphed into the distinctive, flat square-topped trencher (also known as a mortarboard). Oxford sanctioned the use of the tassel in 1770.

When universities opened to the masses, academic dress became a sign of distinction – the attainment of a degree – rather than of the everyday.

Now, once rabbit fur-lined cloaks are largely lined with the faux variety, and wool and silk have mostly given way to eco-friendly recycled synthetic fabrics – an inadvertent nod to academic regalia’s ascetic past.

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