On Academic Regalia

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.

Doctoral Regalia Comic

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.

Left: example of Harry Potter's school regalia--actually me in costume, wearing my master's robe. Right: an example of

Left: example of Harry Potter’s school regalia–actually me in costume, wearing my master’s robe. Right: an example of “alternative regalia,” the $2 Target tiara I wore after my dissertation defense. Considered wearing it to graduation, but decided to be serious (rats!).

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.

This photo shows my regalia (PhD blue velvet, light blue piping) and my advisor's regalia--custom with orange velvet for the University of Tennessee (light blue velvet for the EdD).

This photo shows my regalia (PhD blue velvet, light blue piping) and my advisor’s regalia–custom with orange velvet for the University of Tennessee (light blue velvet for the EdD). The purple streak in my hair has no symbolism other than rad coolness. …I’m not really sure what my fancy “graduation medal” was all about.

And that’s today’s lesson in extreme nerdery!


15 thoughts on “On Academic Regalia

  1. cynthiabeard says:

    You look great! I wore the cheap regalia, and I barely even remember the ceremony because I was on pain medication due to my ankle fracture. What I do remember: 1) insisting on a run-through of using the wheelchair lift (glad I did that because, otherwise, there would have been a long, dramatic pause in the ceremony as folks tried to figure out the mechanics of the lift); 2) coming up with my own “flair” in the form of a zebra-print scarf-wrapped splint; 3) somehow managing to stand up long enough to pose for the official pics (unfortunately, the scarf wasn’t visible in the pics).

    And…you’ve reminded me that I still need to post graduation pics. Sigh…so many things on the “to do” list…

    • Dr. Starr Hoffman says:

      Thanks! Ugh, that’s right–I can’t believe you were able to get through the ceremony while on those meds. Glad you soldiered through! Can’t wait to see the pics when you post them. 🙂

  2. Kathy says:

    I never know about those medals. So i guess since you have one and don’t know, I’ll probably never find out! Your regalia is gorgeous!

  3. P. says:

    You say it’s okay for a a person with an MFA to wear gowns and tams more similar to doctoral grads, since it’s a terminal degree, but that’s not what the American Council on Education says.

    They say: “six-year specialist degrees and other degrees that are intermediate between the master’s and the doctor’s degree may have hoods specially designed (1) intermediate in length between the master’s and doctor’s hood, (2) with a four-inch velvet border (also intermediate between the widths of the borders of master’s and doctor’s hoods), and (3) with color distributed in the usual fashion and according to the usual rules.

    They’re talking about the hood, not the gown.

  4. Recent Ph.D. says:

    A very good friend sent me this and we are both amused at your site, pictures and detail of info, since we’ve been discussing just this very thing… She & her husband intend to gift me with my regalia, and we’ve been arguing about it.
    Starr, because you’re well-educated and curious, you might want to know that it’s a “mortarboard,” not a “motorboard.” I’m kinda suprised that didn’t show up in your spellcheck.

    • Dr. Starr Hoffman says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      Excellent point, I corrected it to “mortarboard.” No doubt I wrote that with the last few brain cells I had left to rub together after my dissertation defense. 🙂

  5. MeandererKaye says:

    Hi just a note that a lot of this is specific to US regalia. In Canada there are generally no chevrons, the gowns are often (but not always) worn open in the British style, and hats are usually big, round and floppy (neither tams nor mortarboards). The gowns themselves can be of all different colours (Queens is red, McGill is red and mint green, UBC is maroon and blue). As PhDs we get hooded onstage. As undergrads (at least when I went through), you had to kneel on stage and were tapped on the head with a mortarboard (by the Vice Chancellor I think?) who said ‘I admit you’ – this is time consuming, and a bit weird, so it seems like it is now getting phased out.

  6. Tory says:

    I’d love to hear the source you used for Mfa terminal degree profs wearing the doctoral robe. Costume designer here. Seems like I need to get this right, plus I will probably make my own.

    • Dr. Starr Hoffman says:

      Hi Tory! Unfortunately, since I wrote this post three years ago, I’ve long forgotten the sources. I did a lot of reading commencement websites and manuals for my institution and some peers–and my institution was one which had no specific recommended doctoral wear anyway, so custom/whatever you preferred was fine. It may have been therethat I read about the MFAs, although I also read a lot of history of US regalia and several websites by manufacturers like Josten’s and Herff Jones.

  7. Cathy Newman says:

    I know this is an old post, but just stopping by to say that today I discovered the RENTAL fee for doctoral robe & cap (hood presented at ceremony) at Louisiana State University is $311. And that’s not a deposit. I found your blog post while googling around to see how other schools compare. Turns out LSU is outrageous.

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