Spring commencement is 11 days away! The Portland State ceremony is a formal rite of passage, full of ritual, with faculty and students in traditional regalia.

But what is the regalia all about? Where did it all begin?

The gown

Today’s academic costume dates back at least 800 years. In medieval Europe, both men and women wore gowns or robes, varying in color, fabric and design according to the wealth and station of the wearer. Since buildings were made of stone and lacked central heating, the long robes were eminently practical.

The modern academic gown can be traced to the Council of Oxford in 1222. Stephen Langton, perhaps England’s greatest medieval archbishop, decreed that all clergy within his jurisdiction should wear the “cappa clausa,” a closed, flowing gown then popular in lay fashion.

Over time, the different professions and trades followed suit, adopting their own unique robes. The medieval universities – such as Oxford and Cambridge – were no exception, organizing themselves into guilds, and prescribing a specific academic dress and control over the details.

So serious was this visual identification that it was a criminal offense for non-university members to wear the traditional cap, gown and hood.

Academic robes eventually evolved into specific costumes for bachelors of arts (apprentices), masters of arts (teachers) and doctors (teachers with additional postgraduate studies). The distinction between masters and doctors is a modern one; both masters and doctoral levels of achievement imply the right to teach.

The hood

The earliest hooded (or cowled) gowns were functional, providing warmth in the unheated English monasteries and stone buildings. The long cowl – worn over a short cape known as a tippet – was the progenitor of today’s academic hood.

The modern academic hood is a purely ornamental item that hangs over the shoulders and down the wearer’s back. This style stems from the way that monks used their hoods as both a type of arcane messenger bag and as a place to keep offerings from benefactors and well-wishers.

Today’s academic hoods are almost always black. The lining color designates the university bestowing the degree, while the decorative facing indicates the field of study. The hood is a traditional part of the academic costume for masters and doctors; some places also still use a short hood for bachelors, although this is rarely seen.

The cap and tassel

The earliest version of the academic cap was probably the skullcap, which replaced the hooded portion of the cowled robe. The skullcap became the favorite headdress of England’s medieval laity and was formally adopted by the Church in 1311.

What is known as today’s mortarboard came from the “pileus quadralus,” Oxford’s traditional square cap, a close-fitting felt variation on the skullcap.

As for the term “mortarboard,” it comes from an 1854 novel, The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green. The character of Green was a fictional Oxford freshman, and “mortarboard” was a sarcastic reference to the shape of his cap, which resembled the mortar bearing “hod” of a bricklayer.

Today’s mortarboard is worn with one point forward between the eyes, and with the flat surface horizontal.

More decorative cap variations were first conferred for the master’s degree and were round with a tuft in the center. These evolved into the multi-pointed velvet beret of the doctoral cap.

Today’s tassel is an elaboration of the original master’s tuft. The tassel is traditionally worn on the wearer’s right before the conferring of degrees, and is moved to the left afterwards.

Honor cords

Most universities use honor cords to designate students who graduate with honors. The cords are a remnant of the medieval cleric’s stole, and are worn around the neck with the tasseled ends hanging loosely down the front. In most cases, gold cords identify those graduating summa cum laude (with highest distinction), silver, magna cum laude (with great distinction), and bronze, cum laude (with distinction).

The class ring

The class ring may have its origins with the ancient Egyptians, who wore their seal and signet scarab rings continually while alive and also wore them after death, often with the ring hand crossed over the heart. The Romans, too, were fond of rings, believing that gold rings bestowed nobility.

The first American class rings originated at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1835. Academic rings quickly gained in popularity, and today are an important part of graduation, particularly at the Ivy League schools and service academies. Today’s rings are made of precious metals and feature not only gems but also engraved images of college mascots and fighting mottoes.

Tradition holds that the academic ring is properly worn on the third “ring” finger of the right hand. This dates back to the times of knighthood, with knights wearing their rings on the right hand for extra strength.

The diploma

In medieval times, much writing was done on prepared animal skins, as they were cheaper and more available than paper. Sheepskin was commonly used. To “hang your sheepskin on the wall” was therefore to display proof of your educational credentials.

The earliest diplomas were rolled up scroll-fashion and tied with ribbons. At the turn of the 20th century, rolled diplomas gave way to flat versions in leather binders.

Academic attire in the United States

During the latter part of the 19th century, styles of academic gowns proliferated, prompting representative trustees from interested institutions to convene in 1895 at Columbia University.

The result of the meeting was the creation of the Intercollegiate Costume Code, regulating the cut, style and materials of gowns, specifying different colors for different disciplines and describing the details of how the attire would be worn.

According to the ICC, no corsages or jewelry are to be pinned to the robe, and both women and men are to wear flat shoes when in academic costume.

Today, universities are still subject to the ICC, but most also retain their own costuming customs as allowed by its guidelines. One has only to watch a procession of university faculty – representing a wide array of home institutions – to see the variety of expressions in academic garb.

The widest range of costume distinction is in the doctoral robes. When a university is given the right to confer doctoral degrees, they also gain the privileges of designing unique regalia for their doctoral graduates.

Students who participate in the June 11 commencement ceremony will be wearing a little bit of academic history.


Three main types of costume








May vary

Gown description

Long pleated front panels

Long pleated front panels

Velvet* panels around the neck and down the front

Gown color



Usually black; some schools have colored doctoral robes

Gown length

Falls just below knees

May be longer than bachelor’s gowns

Longer than bachelor’s gowns

Sleeves: style

Long and pointed

Long and arc-shaped; closed at the bottom; wearer’s arms come through an opening in front of the sleeves

Long and bell-shaped

Sleeves: decoration



Three horizontal velvet* bars

Wearing style


Closed or open

Closed or open

Hood length


3.5 feet long

4 feet long

Hood color


Black outside; bordered with 3 inch band representing degree received; lined with silk in colors of granting institution

Black outside; bordered with 5 inch velvet* band representing degree received; lined with silk in colors of granting institution


Square black mortarboard

Square black mortarboard

6 or 8-cornered velvet tam or beret


Color of field of study

Color of field of study

Gold or color of field of study

Hood and tassel colors at PSU:


School of Fine & Performing Arts



College of Liberal Arts



School of Business Administration


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