The origins of academic dress date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, when universities were emerging from religious organizations. The ordinary dress of the scholar, whether student or teacher, was that of a cleric. With few exceptions, the medieval scholar had taken minor religious orders, made certain vows, and perhaps been tonsured. Long robes were worn and may have been necessary for warmth in unheated buildings. Hoods served to cover the tonsured head until superseded by other headgear. In late 14th-century England, some colleges forbade “excess in apparel” and began to prescribe the wearing of a long robe. The statutes of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge prescribed definite academic dress and made it a matter of university control.
The tradition of a long robe for academe arrived in this country with the colonists and served as the norm at Harvard College, the College of William and Mary, and all American colleges and universities founded in the two centuries thereafter. During the latter part of the 19th century, styles of academic robes proliferated to such a degree that representatives of various institutions convened in 1895 to establish some formal standards. The Intercollegiate Commission brought order to the profusion of academic costumes and in 1932, the American Council on Education authorized a Committee on Academic Costumes and Ceremonies to oversee the code for academic regalia. Still hard at work, that committee provided us with the bulk of this history courtesy of the ACE website.
European institutions continue to have a greater diversity in their specifications of academic dress than is seen in this country.
Robes recommended for use by the institutes of higher learning in this country have certain characteristics. The robe for the Bachelor degree has pointed sleeves and is designed to be worn closed. The robe for the Master degree has oblong sleeves and may be worn either opened or closed. The robe for the Doctoral degree, which may be worn opened or closed, has a velvet panel on each side of the front opening, extending around the neck, and to the bottom of the hem in front. Three horizontal velvet bars are positioned on the upper part of each of the full, bell-shaped sleeves. The velvet trim may be either black or the color particular to the field of the degree holder.
Black is the standard color for Bachelor and Master degree robes. Doctoral degree robes may be black or of a special color and design as established by the particular institution. Robes for governing board members and officials of institutions of higher education frequently depart in color and design from the standard format.
All hoods are black and lined with the color or colors of the institution conferring the degree. The velvet trim is indicative of the subject to which the degree pertains. No hood should have its trim divided to represent more than one degree.
Black mortarboards with black tassels are the standard to be worn by all degree recipients. The only exception is for those with a Doctoral degree or officials of institutions who may wear a tam with a gold tassel or of a color coordinated to special design regalia.
There is no general rule for the position of the tassel on a mortarboard. However, many institutions have adopted the practice, during commencement exercises, of requiring candidates for degrees to wear the tassels on the right front side before degrees are conferred and to shift them to the left after degrees are awarded.
A distinct design for the MIT Doctoral degree robe was adopted in 1995. It is silver-gray with a cardinal red velvet panel outlined in silver-gray piping on each side of the front opening, extending around the neck to a V-point in the back, and to the bottom of the hem in front. Three cardinal red velvet bars outlined in silver-gray piping are positioned on the upper part of each of the sleeves. An eight-sided, silver-gray tam with a cardinal-red tassel is worn with the robe. As this robe is optional, the all-black robe is also worn by those with MIT Doctoral degrees.
At MIT, only holders of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Science (ScD degrees are invested with hoods. The Doctoral degree hood has a rounded base and is four feet long. The velvet trim signifies by color the type of Doctoral degree; in MIT’s case, this means blue trim for PhDs and yellow for ScDs. The lining of the hood carries the school’s colors, which are cardinal-red and silver-gray for MIT. For the joint program in Oceanography / Oceanographic Engineering, which leads to a single degree awarded by MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the WHOI color of Old Glory blue is added to the MIT colors in the hood lining. As the hood lies against the wearer’s back, it should be arranged so that the lining colors show. This is done by folding back the velvet trim, thus turning out the inner lining.