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April 28, 2005

What makes Pitt’s commencement so colorful?

Tradition. For some it means wearing Steelers colors every fall game day. For others it means doing the laundry every Monday. Still others always go to brunch after church on Sundays, or always bowl on Wednesdays.

But once every spring, a tradition born almost a millennium ago sprouts multi-colored wings on university campuses across the country: the pomp and circumstance, the pageantry, the procession, the academic regalia of commencement, the single most important day in a higher education institution’s year.

(Pitt holds its annual commencement convocation this Sunday, May 1, at the Petersen Events Center, 1 p.m.)

Ever wonder what’s behind the choices of academic regalia? Why some gowns are trimmed with stripes and others plain black? Why the hoods that doctorate holders wear vary in color? Why the “hat” of most graduates is square and the tassels are of various hues?

And, who made up these rules, anyway? As one wag put it: “A graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that ‘individuality is the key to success.’”

“It’s the same thing every year,” says Kathleen Fennell, who oversees the distribution of academic dress at the Pitt Book Center. Graduates ask her: “’Why do I have to wear this gown? Why do I have to buy this?’ ‘What’s this for?’”

Fennell’s answer is at the ready: “Because academic regalia is steeped in tradition and because its parts symbolize something important.”

Also handy, she keeps her academic color-by-discipline chart — “my regalia bible!” — to match the color betoking a graduate’s field with his or her ceremonial garb. (See color list below.)

According to the American Council on Education and other academic sources, regalia traditions, which mainly comprise the hood, cap and gown, arose from nascent European universities of the 12th and 13th centuries.

The ceremonial dress that today is reserved for special institutional occasions was derived from daily wear for teachers and students in the Middle Ages.

(Students’ caps and gowns are reserved for commencement exercises, while an institution’s officials and faculty may wear their full regalia in a number of ceremonies, such as honors convocations and chancellor installations.)

Initially a province exclusive to males, the earliest quarters of learning — think one-room schoolhouses — developed clothing styles that reflected contemporary practice coupled with some practical considerations, such as wearing a long gown to provide warmth in unheated school rooms.

The dress style also was influenced by the fact that medieval scholars were predominantly clergymen. With rare exceptions, the scholar was on one rung or another of the clergy’s stepladder: having taken minor orders, for example, or made certain vows, or perhaps been tonsured, that is, had his head shaven in the custom of monks. Hoods probably served initially to cover the tonsured heads in such inhospitable environs.

At the Council of Oxford in 1222, the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered English clerics to wear the cappa clausa — a closed, flowing gown reflecting the period’s standard fashion.

When observance by the non-teaching clergy of the dress code rules waned, the gown became associated more readily with academia and, eventually, came to symbolize (in today’s terms) the democracy of scholarship, where the garb covered any visible distinctions of social class or wealth among students. Gradually, over the centuries, the academic costumes became distinctive for bachelors of arts (the apprentices), masters of arts (the teachers) and doctors (teachers who had completed postgraduate studies).

In 1321, the University of Coimbra (Portugal) instituted a rule requiring all “doctors, licentiates and bachelors” to wear gowns. Later that century, British universities adopted similar mandatory practices. In the 16th century, Oxford and Cambridge first began prescribing a specialized academic dress, leaving it to the institutions to specify the details. European universities continue today to have a wider variety of academic garb than do their American counterparts, which formalized the dress guidelines into specific across-the-board rules.

Use of the academic robe first came to the United States in 1754 with the founding of what is now Columbia University.

Over time, American institutions dropped the academic dress code in the classroom and reserved costumes for special events.

A significant contributor to the development of American guidelines was Gardner Cotrell Leonard of Albany, N.Y.

Leonard, who had designed gowns for his class at Williams College in 1887, published a guide on ceremonial academic dress in 1893. Subsequently, he was invited by the Intercollegiate Commission to help establish uniform regulations for American institutions. The commission codified academic dress for special ceremonies in 1895, which in addition to regulating the cut, style and materials of the gowns, prescribed individual colors to represent the different fields of learning.

For American ceremonies, the color white, then-prominent in the trimming of Oxford’s and Cambridge’s bachelor’s hoods, was assigned to arts and letters. Red, long a customary church color, was given to theology. Green, the color of many herbs, was adopted for medicine, with olive green going to the closely related discipline of pharmacy. Golden yellow, symbolizing the benefits of scientific research, was assigned to the sciences.

In 1932, the American Council on Education appointed its committee on academic costumes and ceremonies to revisit the academic dress guidelines, and did so again in 1959. The council’s most recent review took place in 1986, when, among other minor alterations, dark blue got the committee’s imprimatur as the color for Ph.D. degrees.

Usually gowns are black, although some American and many foreign universities use colors.

Generally, bachelor’s gowns have straight sleeves. The master’s gown is much like the bachelor’s, but with long pointed sleeves.

Doctoral gowns, in contrast, have round, open sleeves and typically are trimmed with three stripes on the arms and two long stripes down the center. Sometimes these stripes are black; other times, they represent the degree discipline colors.

Fifteen or so U.S. universities, including all Ivy League institutions except Dartmouth, have doctoral gowns particular to their school, which may be worn at all ceremonies. Harvard, for example, uses a crimson robe with black trim; Yale, royal blue with black trim, and Penn, a red robe, with sleeves red at the top but blue at the bottom.


The hood

As an academic vestment, the hood originated as a cowl worn by monks. Monks wore hoods over a short cape, known as a tippet. The hoods also had a tail, the liripipe, which was used to pull the hood over the head and which wrapped around the throat to keep the hood in place.

Today the tippet remains as part of the hood and, although the hood is never worn on the head, the liripipe is retained as the funnel-shaped part that drapes down the back of the robe.

The master’s hood is a half-foot longer than the bachelor’s; the doctor’s hood is a half-foot longer than the master’s.

The school colors are depicted in the inside lining of the hood. In all cases the hood’s material must be the same as that of the gown.

In the case of the Ph.D. degree, dark blue is used to represent the mastery of the discipline of learning and scholarship in any field and is not intended to represent the field of philosophy per se.

Typically, at commencement exercises including Pitt’s, doctoral candidates are “hooded” at the ceremony by officials from their respective schools at the point their degree is conferred.

Wearing the hood hanging down the back of the gown probably is a remnant of a practice among medieval monks, who used their hoods as collection baskets when they solicited funds.

The binding or edging of the hood should be velvet, two inches, three inches and five inches wide for the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, respectively.

The edging color should be that of the discipline to which the degree pertains. For example, the trimming for the degree of Master of Science in engineering should be orange, representing the field, rather than golden yellow, representing science.


The cap

The pileus, a common headpiece of medieval laity, was first adopted by the Catholic Church at the Synod of Bergamo in 1311 and gradually became typical headwear at clergy-staffed European universities.

The pileus quadralus (square cap) evolved much later into today’s mortar board, worn by most graduates. (The term mortar board was coined in an 1854 novel, “The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, an Oxford Freshman,” as a sarcastic reference to the cap’s shape.)

A tassel is fastened to the middle point of the top of the cap. The tassel should be black or the color appropriate to the discipline, with the exception of the doctoral cap, which may have a gold tassel.

There is no established rule for the position of the tassel on a mortar board. However, many institutions have adopted the practice during commencement exercises of asking candidates for degrees to wear the tassels on the right front side before degrees are conferred and to shift them to the left at the moment that degrees are awarded. This custom is a substitute for individual hooding, which is impractical for a large graduating class.

(At Pitt’s commencement, doctoral graduates are hooded individually, but bachelor’s and master’s degrees are conferred en masse by school.)

By tradition, men may remove caps during prayer, the playing of the national anthem or the alma mater, and at other specified times, for example, during the commencement address.

While exceptions abound, mainly in contemporary European institutions, most U.S. universities stick to most of the regalia guidelines. Some exceptions are permissible, however, according to the American Council on Education. They include:

• High-ranking university officials, such as the chief university marshal or the chancellor, can wear regalia, including headwear, that denote their discipline or their particular office. They also may carry a mace or staff or wear emblems of the institution as a sign of their authority.

• Officials of a university, regardless of degrees earned, are entitled to wear doctor’s gowns (with black velvet), but their hoods should reflect degrees actually held by the wearer.

• Persons who hold degrees from foreign universities may wear the entire appropriate academic costume, including cap, gown and hood, of those universities.

• Women may wear white collars with a bachelor’s gown.

• Members of religious orders or the military may wear their customary habits or uniforms instead of academic regalia.

• It is customary in many large institutions for the hood to be dispensed with by those receiving baccalaureate degrees.

• Academic costume code may be adapted to individual conditions, such as the nature of the institution, the size of the graduating class or the weather when the ceremony takes place outdoors.

—Peter Hart

Here is the color table for distinguishing academic regalia as codified by the American Council on Education:

Agriculture — Maize

Arts, letters, humanities — White

Commerce, accountancy, business — Drab

Dentistry — Lilac

Economics — Copper

Education — Light blue

Engineering — Orange

Fine arts, including architecture — Brown

Forestry — Russet

Information sciences — Lemon

Journalism — Crimson

Law — Purple

Medicine — Green

Music — Pink

Nursing — Apricot

Oratory (Speech) — Silver gray

Pharmacy — Olive green

Philosophy — Dark blue

Physical education — Sage green

Public administration/foreign service — Peacock blue

Public health — Salmon pink

Science — Golden yellow

Social work — Citron

Theology — Scarlet

Veterinary science — Gray

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