I debated long and hard before buying academic regalia for my doctoral graduation. Even the “cheap set” is expensive ($100) and is of particularly disappointing quality–my main problem with that being that it doesn’t photograph well, as discovered with the $50 I spent on the similarly-crummy master’s set. I also wasn’t sure if I’d need to wear it again regularly–that depending on the particular institution you work at, their faculty status (or lack thereof) for librarians, and how many of their ceremonies actually require regalia. I looked up regalia rental options in the Dallas area, but they all catered only to bachelor grads or to individual institutions–no all-around doctoral options. In the end I decided that my custom regalia was worth the investment (it can cost between $350 and $1000) to look nice and that it’s likely that during my academic career I’ll work at an institution where I attend commencement and other regalia-requiring ceremonies 2-6 times a year. (My custom regalia is in the photo at the end of this post.)
Since I’m a librarian, and therefore curious by nature, you might guess that I’ve nerded out on the question of how regalia came about, and what the colors mean.
Why the fancy regalia? Back when universities started in the 12th and 13th centuries, they were often affiliated with religious institutions. In fact, many of the students had taken orders and were clerics. Clerics wore robes as daily wear, thus students wore robes–think of how the kids always wear robes in class in the earlier Harry Potter movies. In America, this is just something we do for fancy occasions now (sadly). The odd-shaped hoods were in fact originally hoods that covered the head.
Why do so many faculty members look different at commencement ceremonies for the same institution? This is because faculty wear the regalia from the institution from which they graduated. Therefore, some of them have specialty gowns (Oxford gowns are red, Yale are blue), and some of them have different hats (motarboards versus tams, which are the floppy velvet hats with 4, 6, or 8 corners). In addition, there are differences in velvet colors (and sometimes piping) due to degree types and fields. However, the university president usually wears a president-specific gown where the colors are unique to the institution and there are often four velvet chevrons on the sleeves (instead of the usual three). Also, doctorates of theology often get red gowns with black velvet.
So… what about the velvet? Typically, doctoral gowns have three velvet chevrons on the sleeves, and a velvet collar and stripe down the front of the gown. The hood (the funny thing hanging around the neck and down the back) has velvet as well. The velvet indicates the degree type: typically black or royal blue indicates PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, regardless of the field in which that PhD was earned. Non-PhD doctorates have their own colors. For instance, EdD (Doctor of Education) has light blue velvet. Piping color (around the velvet) is typically an optional thing and thus up to each person–many choose gold to set off their black or blue PhD velvet. However, I chose light blue (signifying education, my field) to set off my PhD blue (for my degree type), to indicate that my PhD is in Higher Education.
Doesn’t anything show your institution’s color? Yep, the inside lining of the hood is satin, typically in your two school colors. Thus, mine is green and white for UNT.
Don’t master’s candidates have hoods, too? Yep. They get a gown that’s more similar to a typical black undergraduate gown (so no velvet), but with longer odd-shaped flaps coming down from the sleeves, and they wear a regular mortarboard. The hood is similar to that for the doctor, with the satin indicating school colors. However, the velvet always denotes field (there’s not a master’s velvet color analog to the PhD blue). My master’s hood velvets are white (Art History) and yellow (Library Science). The exception to this rule are masters that are terminal degrees, such as the MFA (Master of Fine Arts). These graduates may wear gowns and tams more similar to doctoral grads, since it’s a terminal degree in that field–there is no PhD in Fine Arts.
And that’s today’s lesson in extreme nerdery!