A History of Graduation Gowns & Academic Dress by the Burgon Society

This article was kindly provided by the Burgon Society. For more details about the Burgon Society please see the foot of the article.

The first specifically academic item of dress, used in medieval universities was the cappa clausa, a large sleeveless cloak with an opening in front for hands for dons worn over a gown. In the sixteenth century Oxford and Cambridge this cloak was abandoned in favour of the gown alone, which was open in front and had long sleeves. These early gowns were worn on top of cassocks and were weighty garments to keep out the cold. Hoods were originally used as separate headwear with a cape covering the shoulder and with a long tail - called a liripipe which fell down from the back of the head. From the fifteenth century, the hood ceased to be a head covering - hats, ruffs and wigs made them impractical - but it lay on the shoulders, and the liripipe draped down the back.

The shape and colour of gowns and hoods came to be strictly regulated. This was a remnant of the medieval and Tudor 'sumptuary laws.' These were rules which limited who could wear certain colours and accoutrements such as swords, ruffs and cloaks. Scarlet, being a royal colour, was confined to judges, bishops and the highest university officials, including the holders of doctor's degrees. Other gowns were required to be black. Over time, the shape and colour of gowns and hoods were defined for specific degrees, such as BA, MA and doctorates. At Oxford and Cambridge bachelors of arts wore gowns with wide, open sleeves and hoods which were black with a lining of white fur. Masters wore black gowns with Tudor or 'bag' sleeves, from which arms emerged at the elbow and the remainder of the sleeve draped to the floor, ending in a square. Masters were allowed to wear hoods which were lined with more costly silk (rather than fur). On their heads they wore hats which often took a square shape, either a 'mortarboard' or other form of a square cap.

From the Reformation until 1822 there were only two universities in England, four in Scotland and Trinity College Dublin. But in the last two hundred years colleges and universities were established and each was allowed the privilege of determining what academic dress their graduates would wear. There were four distinct phases in the foundation of modern universities: the early nineteenth century foundations (St David's College, Lampeter (1822), the University of Durham (1832), University College London and King's College London (1828-9)), large civic universities (Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Sheffield, Wales, Belfast,), the 'Redbrick' universities (Bristol, Nottingham, Reading) and the modern universities, including those polytechnics that were granted university status in 1992. Since 2000 more than a dozen colleges of higher education have also gained university status. A number of royal colleges (such as medical colleges), institutes and learned societies also award academic dress.

Most universities adopted the style of bachelors and masters gowns that had been used at Oxford and Cambridge, and some followed the tradition that bachelors have fur on their hoods and masters have silk. But naturally, with over 140 universities in the UK, many different colours and styles have developed. Some universities, like Portsmouth and the new University of Manchester (2005) have adopted purple as a colour 'theme' for their corporate design and academic dress - and some, like Keele use it for their doctoral robes. Other universities like Aston, Glamorgan and Brighton have adopted cloth on their gowns and hoods in which their arms or logos are woven.

The Burgon Society

The Burgon Society exists to promote the study of academical dress in all its aspects - design, history and practice; to preserve details of the past and present practices of institutions regarding academical dress; and to act in an advisory capacity to those who wish to ensure correctness in the usage of academical dress. Further information can be found at www.Burgon.org.uk.

Marston Events Limited is proud to be a corporate member of the Burgon Society.