The custom of wearing a distinctive dress for academic ceremonies dates to the Middle Ages. Academic dress worn at commencements and other college and university ceremonial occasions lends dignity and color and reveals academic achievements through the style of gowns and hoods, and their varying colors.
Based on the costumes worn at universities in the 14th and 15th centuries — especially at Oxford and Cambridge in England — today’s academic dress is essentially the same as that standardized in the United States by the Intercollegiate Code adopted in 1895. It includes the familiar square mortarboard cap with a tassel that may be black, gold, or an appropriate color, such as pink for a degree in music.
The code includes three different styles of black gowns and colored hoods for bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. The bachelor’s gown has a long, pointed sleeve; the master’s a long, closed sleeve with a slit for the elbow; and the doctor’s a full, bell-shaped sleeve with three velvet bands matching the velvet facing of the gown opening. The velvet on the doctor’s gown is often in a color appropriate to the wearer’s field of study. The gown itself may be in color, such as blue for Yale, or banded in color, such as orange for Princeton.
Of the three hood styles, the doctor’s is the most elaborate. The bachelor’s hood is rarely used. All three hoods are made of material to match the gowns and are lined in the official color of the institution that conferred the degree, with a chevron used for a second color if needed.
The colored velvet binding indicates the academic degree area: white for liberal arts, yellow for science, purple for law, red for theology, green for medicine, and blue for philosophy. If used, the Grinnell hood would be black, lined with scarlet, and with white velvet binding. Grinnell’s doctoral hood — used for honorary degrees — is black, lined with velvet binding in the appropriate color, such as purple for the LL.B.
Caps and gowns representing degrees from international universities may be quite different from those just described. The most obvious difference may be in the cap, which is often a soft, round hat of the style worn by medieval scholars.