Academic Procession and Costume

The academic procession itself is one of the highlights of the day, having all the splendor and majesty that is properly associated with such a happy occasion as this. Each member of the procession is garbed according to his or her educational background. After the marshal, come the candidates for the degrees they have earned, the representatives of the university and the departments, and the honorary degree recipients.

The bachelor of science recipients at WPI receive their diplomas individually from the president. Diplomas for master of science are given in much the same manner. Each person who has earned the degree of doctor of philosophy, the highest academic degree awarded by any university, receives not only a diploma but a hood symbolizing his or her achievement, presented by the faculty member who has sponsored the candidate.

The academic costume (caps, gowns, hoods) worn are particularly striking, for Commencement is one of the few occasions in the United States at which academic dress is worn. By contrast, in English colleges and universities, both students and faculty until recently wore their gowns in class, in university dining halls, and at all official occasions.

Academic dress originated in medieval costume. At the time when universities first came into being, in the 12th century, everyone wore gowns (that is, long, full- flowing robes) to help keep warm in unheated buildings. There were, of course, considerable differences in elegance and style between the extremes of the social and economic scales, and in many cases the king decreed just who could wear what.

Over the gown would often be worn a cloak (usually with a cowl or hood attached), just as we wear coats today. The origin of the cap is more obscure. The "mortarboard" cap usually worn seem to have been introduced at Oxford University sometime in or before the 17th century.

The gown soon fell out of fashion with the general public, but it remained a distinctive part of the scholars' wardrobe, serving to set them apart from the rest of the community - hence the perennial controversy between "town and gown." Until after the Civil War, students at most U.S. universities wore caps and gowns daily while in residence. Designs varied until they were standardized by the American Intercollegiate Commission in 1894.

At that time it was decided that all robes would be black - bachelors' gowns to be made of worsted stuff with pointed sleeves, masters' gowns of silk with long, closed sleeves, doctors' gowns of silk with longer sleeves and faced with black velvet from hem to neck and back. They also carried three velvet bands around each sleeve about the elbow. Hoods were made of the same material as the gowns, the length varying with the degree. The lining of the hood indicated the university by its colors. The border of the hood indicated the academic discipline in which the degree was earned, as listed below:

Discipline Color
Agriculture Maize
Arts, Letters, Humanities White
Commerce, Accountancy, Business Light Brown
Dentistry Lilac
Economics Copper
Education Light Blue
Engineering Orange
Fine Arts, including Architecture Brown
Forestry Russet
Journalism Crimson
Law Purple
Library Science Lemon
Medicine Green
Music Pink
Nursing Apricot
Oratory (Speech) Silver Gray
Pharmacy Olive Green
Philosophy Dark Blue
Physical Education Sage Green
Public Administration, including Foreign Service Peacock Blue
Public Health Salmon Pink
Science Golden Yellow
Social Work Citron
Theology Scarlet
Veterinary Science Gray


  • Email a Friend
  • Bookmark this Page
  • Share this Page