As any graduate of Oxford University – or Harry Potter movie buff – knows, caps and gowns are the traditional dress of scholars. At some British universities, academic regalia is still worn, not only to ceremonial events, but to formal dinners and events, exams and chapel. (And if Hollywood is any guide, to fight Voldemort or play Quidditch too.)
But in the United States, academic regalia is traditionally worn for commencement ceremonies, not class. Universities follow a mixture of centuries-old tradition and an inter-collegiate color code set out in 1893 and tweaked over the years. Baccalaureate ceremonies typically require a less formal style of dress, but for commencement, it's all about the gown.
Academic Regalia for Undergrads
Most undergraduates wear a black mortarboard or cap with a tassel, and long academic robes or gowns that reach mid-calf – topped, in many cases, by a “hood.” The latter is not an actual hood in the sense of a hooded sweatshirt or Little Red Riding Hood’s signature cape. This ceremonial swath of fabric doesn’t cover the head; instead it drapes down the back, adding a splash of color that represents the graduating student's academic discipline and school.
These gowns and accouterments tend to be university- and major-specific, so even if you happen to have a black academic robe hanging in the back of the closet, your new graduate is still going to need the hood – and let’s face it, you lost the mortarboard years ago when you threw it into the air at your own graduation ceremony. It’s easier to simply rent or purchase the package through the university. Your senior should receive ordering information a few months before graduation, but you may want to doublecheck with him as graduation nears.
Note: These gowns tend to be hot, especially when worn at sweltering outdoor ceremonies in warm-weather states. If your new graduate is contemplating wearing something skimpy underneath – a bathing suit, for example – he or she should consider a couple of things. First, hairy legs sticking out from beneath a graduation gown will look less than sophisticated on stage and in photographs. And second, many universities have a graduation gown recycling booth just outside the ceremony so students can drop off their regalia, which means that whatever they’re wearing underneath will be visible to everyone. Just a thought… You can always tuck more substantial clothing - a sundress or shirt - in your graduation survival bag.
Academic Regalia for Grad Students
The regalia for masters and doctoral students tends to be more elaborate than the gowns for undergrads. The fabric may be heavier and more elaborate, the sleeves may have velvet stripes – black or a color that denotes the discipline and honor – and the hood and mortarboard may be more elaborate as well. At some universities, doctoral graduates wear a cap that looks more like a poofy velvet hat or tam. And some universities set their own rules. At Harvard, for example, doctoral students wear crimson gowns, and undergraduates wear crimson hoods with their black gowns.
Note: If your new graduate has professorial aims or is planning to teach at a college prep high school, he or she will be wearing those robes 20 or 30 times more, so purchasing this clothing makes a lot of sense. If your new graduate falls into this category, you might want to remind him or her that it's probably best not to throw that hat at ceremony's end. Mortarboards can be tough to get back in the sea of happy new grads.