Academic regalia in the United States has been influenced by the academic dress traditions of Europe. There is an Inter-Collegiate code which sets out a detailed uniform scheme of academic regalia followed by most, though some institutions do not adhere to it entirely, and fewer still ignore it.
The practice of wearing academic regalia in the United States dates to the Colonial Colleges period, and was heavily influenced by European practices and styles. Students of most colonial colleges were required to wear the "college habit" at most times - a practice that lasted until the eve of the American Civil War in many institutions of higher learning. In some rare instances the practice has persisted, such as at Sewanee, where members of one student society continue to wear the gown to class. After the Civil War, academic regalia was generally only worn at ceremonies or when representing the institution. There was not, however, any standardization among the meanings behind the various costumes. In 1893, an Intercollegiate Commission made up of representatives from leading institutions was created, to establish an acceptable system of academic dress. The Commission met at Columbia College (now Columbia University) in 1895 and adopted a code of academic regalia, which prescribed the cut and style and materials of the gowns, as well as determined the colours which were to represent the different fields of learning. In 1932 the American Council on Education (ACE) authorized the appointment of a committee "to determine whether revision and completion of the academic code adopted by the conference of the colleges and universities in 1895 is desirable at this time, and, if so, to draft a revised code and present a plan for submitting the code to the consideration of the institutional members of the Council." The committee reviewed the situation and approved a code for academic costumes that has been in effect since that year. A Committee on Academic Costumes and Ceremonies, appointed by the American Council on Education in 1959, again reviewed the academic dress code and made several changes.
Although academic dress is now rarely worn outside commencement ceremonies or other academic rituals such as encaenia in the U.S. graduation ceremonies have gained popularity and have expanded from high school graduations to middle school, elementary school and kindergarten graduation ceremonies.
Bachelors' and masters' gowns in the United States are similar to their counterparts in the United Kingdom, though bachelor's gowns are now designed to be worn closed, and all are at least mid-calf length to ankle-length. The masters' gown sleeve is oblong and, though the base of the sleeve hangs down in the typical manner, it is square cut at the rear part of the oblong shape. The front part has an arc cut away, and there is a slit for the wrist opening, but the rest of the arc is closed. The shape is evocative of the square-cut liripipe incorporated into many academic hoods (see, below). The master's gown is designed to be worn open or closed.
Doctoral robes are typically black, although some schools use robes in the school's colours. The Code calls for the outside shell of the hood (see, below) to remain black in that case, however. In general, doctoral gowns are similar to the gowns worn by bachelor's graduates, with the addition of three velvet bands on the sleeves and velvet facing running down the front of the gown. The Code calls for the gown trim to be either black or the colour designated for the field of study in which the doctorate was earned (see Inter-Collegiate colors). However, it should be noted that in the case of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), although it is awarded for study in any number of fields, the dark blue velvet of philosophy is always used regardless of the particular field studied. For example, if not choosing black trim, a Ph.D. in theology would wear velvet gown trim in dark blue, while a Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) would wear scarlet trim, if not choosing black. The robes have full sleeves, instead of the bell sleeves of the bachelor's gown. Some gowns expose a necktie or cravat when closed, while others take an almost cape-like form. It is designed to be worn open or closed in the front.
The Code calls for the shell material of the hood to match the robe, and for the colour to be black regardless of the colour of the robe being worn. The interior lining - generally silk - displays the colours of the institution from which the wearer received the degree, in a pattern prescribed by it (usually, if more than one colour is used, chevrons or equal divisions). The opening of the hood is trimmed in velvet or velveteen. In most American colleges and universities, the colour of the velvet hood trimming is distinctive of the academic field — or as closely related as possible — to which the degree earned pertains (see Inter-Collegiate colors, below). Many institutions, particularly larger ones, have dispensed with the bachelor's hood at commencement ceremonies altogether, though a graduate is still entitled to wear one once the degree is conferred.
Headwear is an important component of cap-and-gown, and the academic costume is not complete without it. The headwear will vary with the level of academic achievement and, to some extent, on the individual academic institution's specifications. For caps, the mortarboard is recommended in the Code, and the material required to match the gown. The exception—velvet—is reserved for the doctor's degree only, seen in the form of a multiple-sided (4, 6, or 8) tam, but the four-sided mortarboard-shaped tam in velvet is what the Code seems to recommend here. The only colour called for is black, in all cases. The tassel worn on the mortarboard or a tam seems to provide, by tradition, the greatest opportunity for latitude in American academic dress. It has been black, or represented the university's colours, or the colours of the specific college, or the discipline. The tassel has also been used to indicate membership in national honour societies or other awards. There is at some colleges and universities a practice of moving the tassel from one side to the other on graduating, but this is a modern innovation that would be impractical out of doors due to the vagaries of the wind. For doctoral and masters students, the tassel commonly begins and remains on the left.
The colours allocated to the various fields of learning have been largely standardized in the United States by the Intercollegiate Bureau of Academic Costume, and accepted by the American Council on Education in its Academic Costume Code. Some of the more common colours seen are that liberal arts is represented by white, science by golden yellow, medicine by green, law by purple, and philosophy (including all Ph.D. degrees) by dark blue. A distinction is made in the code, which calls for a graduate to display the colour of the subject of the degree obtained, not the degree itself. For example, if a graduate is awarded a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree specifically in business the trimming should be drab, representing commerce/accountancy/business, rather than white, representing the broader arts/letters/humanities; the same method is true of master's degrees and doctorates. However, in 1986, the American Council on Education updated the Code and added the following sentence clarifying the use of the colour dark blue for the Doctor of Philosophy degree, which is awarded in any number of fields: "In the case of the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree, the dark blue colour is used to represent the mastery of the discipline of learning and scholarship in any field that is attested to by the awarding of the degree, and it is not intended to represent the field of philosophy."
A number of other items such as cords, stoles, aiguillettes, etc. representing various academic achievements or other honours are also worn at the discretion of some degree-granting institutions. Technically, however, the ACE code does not allow their use on or over academic regalia.
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