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Getting the hang of academic dress


I recently had the opportunity to join the academic processional at my friend’s graduation. What was funny about this was that although I’m a member of staff, my own PhD is still under examination, so I had the surreal experience of welcoming the PhD graduates “into the academy”… despite not yet being in the academy myself.

Standing in the anteroom with the other academics “robing up”, I realised something: a number of us (myself included) had uncertainties about how to properly wear the academicals, or academic dress. You have billowy robes with four arm slits (two options which each designate the award of a different degree), a hood that exerts a stranglehold each time you stand up if not properly held in place, and a hat with no discernible front and back. And on which side is the tassel on the trencher supposed to hang? It’s a sartorial minefield.

In fact, I actually realised half way through the ceremony that I had my arms through the wrong slits in the sleeves. And this is after I consulted a handful of colleagues on the matter. And that’s the thing about academic robes: they are so distinctive, but also kind of mystifying. How are they supposed to be worn? Are the colours of the hoods (signifying what degree has been earned) universal? And from where did they originate?

Academic dress dates back to the earliest universities, established in medieval Europe from the 11th century. At this time, robes were worn on a daily basis. One theory holds that as the earliest universities did not have their own buildings, studies were conducted in nearby cathedrals, so scholars (often clerics or aspiring clerics) would wear robes and hoods to keep warm whilst they studied.

Such apparel has been a constant in higher education since that time, although variations have been incorporated throughout time to distinguish among the different degrees earned by a scholar.

Interestingly, these variations have not been universalised, although academic wear in general is still largely influenced by the custom at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Although academic dress usually is comprised of robes, a hood, and some manner of hat (usually a trencher, a bonnet or a tam), the colours worn on the hood signify the award of different degrees, university to university. Likewise, what kind of hat doctoral graduates wear, or even the base colour of the robes vary.

In our procession last Friday, most academics wore the robes unique to the institutions from which they graduated. Cue wonderful robes of bright crimson or blue (instead of plain old black), squashy velvet tams with gold piping, gold armbands encircling the upper arm, and one academic even wore a soft Knox bonnet on a slant, like a Phrygian cap but cooler.

It made me wish we had fancier doctoral garb at the University of Sydney – our graduates wear black robes with a crimson hood and a trencher. Classic, sure, but as my friend Chris observed, doctoral grads from some universities get to wear top hats. I’m just saying.

As for the rest of the look, it is correct to wear formal attire underneath your robes. Most people will know this already, graduation ceremonies being formal affairs, but did you know that some universities regulate what is to be worn, and that it is called “subfusc”?

It basically involves a lot of black and white, and a tie for both sexes. The usefulness of a tie in this ensemble is that the knot holds your hood in place if you tuck the tie’s lengths over the hood’s collarbone strap. If you don’t want to wear a tie, I advise using a couple of safety pins to discreetly attach the underside of the hood to your robes to avoid the aforementioned “hood half-nelson” when you stand to collect your degree.

What I especially like about these speciality garments is all the different names given to them. The trencher, for example: it’s also called a square cap, a mortarboard, an Oxford cap, a corner cap, or just a square. How typical of academics not to agree on what to call something!

I tend to wonder if calling it a “trencher” came from the resemblance of the cap’s flat, square crown to trenchers, old-fashioned platters for food. “Mortarboard” was apparently given because the hat looks like a plasterer’s hawk which holds mortar used to lay bricks.

Being thus armed, I will now be prepared for my own graduation later this year (all things going to plan): arms through the second set of slits, and tassel on the right to be turned to the left once I have the degree in hand. And then I might look at enrolling in a second PhD at Victoria University of Wellington to get in line for one of those cool Knox bonnets …

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