Modern Academic Regalia dates back to the 12th and 13th Centuries, when Universities as we now know them, were developing. At that time, the majority of students and teachers had taken at least minor religious orders, made certain vows and in many cases been tonsured, reflecting the cleric control of knowledge and learning at the time (Education had previously been the preserve of Monasteries). Accordingly, the form of dress adopted by academics reflected cleric dress of the time.
The University of Coimbra in 1321 required "Doctors, Licentiates and Bachelors" to wear gowns. The gowns of the time would have been long (to provide warmth in poorly heated buildings) and closed at the front, a feature retained by many American universities to this day. During the reign of Henry VIII of England, Oxford and Cambridge first began prescribing specific forms of Academic dress. By that time, English fashion had dictated an open and flowing robe displaying rich lining. The display of linings remains reflected in the two scarlet facings of most PhD gowns and the front and sleeve facings in Higher Doctorate gowns seen today. The style of gowns, and other items, determined by Oxford and Cambridge have provided the basis for Academic gowns throughout the British Commonwealth, Eire, South Africa and to a minor degree, the United States. Traditionally the gowns were made of silk or stuff (from the French, e'toffe, material). Modern gowns are made of synthetics, synthetic wool blends or pure wool, with silk or satin used on some facings and sleeve linings.
Figure 1: Examples of modern gowns. Note that the American style gown is closed at the front and has cuffed sleeves in the French style. The PhD gown for the University of Queensland is similar in cut to the Master gown, but has red panels down the front in the same style as gold panels on the Doctorate gown.
The hood had its origin in the tippet, or shoulder covering worn by begging friars in the early middle ages. The tippet developed from a shoulder covering to also provide a cowl and a bag or pocket into which alms or goods could be placed. Both the cowl and the pocket are retained in the various hoods worn today. Modern hoods commonly follow one or other of two shapes, known as the "Full" or "Cambridge" shape and the "Simple" or "Oxford" shape.
Figure 2: Example of a Cambridge or Full shaped hood. Note the flat panel at the rear which is the remnants of the tippet (often referred to as a cape), the lining (gold) inside the cowl and the bag or pocket (known as a lirripipe).
Figure 3: Example of an Oxford or Simple shaped hood. Note the absence of the tippet or cape. The lining (red) inside the cowl remains as does the lirripipe.
There are two common forms of headwear. The oldest is the Tudor Bonnet worn by many PhD and Higher Doctorates in the Commonwealth, Eire and South Africa. With its stiff brim and soft velvet top, the Tudor Bonnet was the height of fashion in the times of Henry VIII (the Tudor dynasty) and has changed little. The bonnet has a coloured cord and tassels which often identify the institution they represent.
Figure 4: An example of a Tudor Bonnet as worn by a University of Queensland PhD. For a Higher Doctorate the red cord and tassels are replaced by a gold cord and tassels.
Trencher caps, also known as mortar-boards, are a fairly recent innovation and grew out of the Pileus, a cap worn at Oxford and Cambridge around the seventeenth century. The square cap of the day grew so large that a board was inserted to prevent the corners from drooping over the eyes. Traditionally a skull cap was worn beneath the Pileus. The sewing of the skull cap to the Pileus was a marriage of convenience. The tassel was approved by Oxford in 1770.
Figure 5: An example of a modern trencher. The vestiges of the Pileus and the skull cap can be seen.
Notes of Academic Dress - University of Tasmania
History of Academic Dress - University of Technology Sydney
Historical Overview - American Council on Education
Haycroft, F. (1923) Degrees and Hoods of the Worlds Universities and Colleges. Jennings and Bewley, Ware, Harts.
Pictures courtesy of Raymond W Bredin & Son, Makers of Academic, Legal, Civic and Clerical Robes.