Explaining the history of graduation regalia

Dear Benny,
Why do the graduates, faculty and staff wear so many different caps, gowns and colors during Penn’s Commencement ceremony?
—Curious about Commencement Regalia

Dear CCR:
The many different styles and colors worn during Commencement can be baffling to those who don’t know the color code.

All the gowns worn by Penn’s graduating class are black, and the hood is lined in red, with a blue chevron. The edging of the hood is made of velvet, with the color of the border indicating the graduate’s field of study.

White stands for arts and letters (B.A., M.A.); golden yellow represents science (B.S. M.S.); and mustard yellow signifies business administration. Nursing is apricot; medicine is green; law is purple and fine arts is brown. Lilac represents dental medicine and gray signifies veterinary medicine. Education is light blue; social work is citron and philosophy (Ph.D.) is dark blue.

The cut of the graduates’ gowns also carries meaning. The gown for the bachelor’s degree has pointed sleeves. The gown for the master’s degree has an oblong sleeve. The doctoral gown has a black velvet stripe that extends down the front, as well as three black velvet stripes across the sleeves.  

Faculty and staff wear the official color or colors of the institution that granted the highest degree they’ve been awarded. Look closely and you’ll undoubtedly note the orange and black of Princeton, Yale blue and Harvard crimson.

As for headwear, the traditional mortarboard is worn by most, but some prefer the soft square-topped caps. Recipients of doctorates may choose to wear a gold tassel fastened to the top of the cap. Recipients of all other degrees wear a black tassel.

American commencement rituals date back to the 18th century, when most U.S. colleges adopted England’s style of academic dress. England’s history of academic dress goes back to the late 14th century.

Originally published on May 5, 2011