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Regalia tradition has bright history in universities

By Clifton B. Parker on April 14, 2006 in University

The faculty cap and gown closet is open for another graduation season.

While students most often rent their commencement regalia through the campus bookstore, professors and other instructors are invited to borrow for free from the university's commencement wardrobe.

Some professors have their own regalia. Take Matt Augustine, for example, who joined the Department of Chemistry in 1997: "As soon as I got tenure (in 2001) … I knew I was here for the long haul, so I might as well have my own robe."

Wearing it shows pride in academic tradition, he said. Also, when faculty members don their regalia for commencement, the university "has a chance to put its best foot forward."

Augustine received his robe, plus a cap and hood, as a birthday gift from his wife, Julia Munsch. Next year Munsch — a former Web developer for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences — is due to receive a doctor in pharmacy degree from UC San Francisco, and Augustine plans to present her with a set of academic regalia.

Augustine's hood — the scarflike adornment that goes around the neck and drapes down the back — is black with "Yale blue" lining, signifying the university where he received his doctoral degree.

UC is a "blue" school, too, and one reason for that is UC's early connection to Yale, where many of UC's original administrators and more prominent professors came from, according to UCLA's commencement Web site. UC's gold signifies the Golden State; the state flower, the golden poppy; and the Golden Gate, visible from Berkeley, the first UC campus.

UC Davis owns about 400 academic robes — which used to be enough for all faculty who wanted them when the university was smaller, said Steve Train, assistant to the campus's special services supervisor.

Today, the university rents an additional 200 gowns annually to meet the demand, he said.

The commencement regalia is tucked in a corner of the campus's central storehouse, and looked after by Train and his boss, Vern Nickell. One day recently, some 400 gowns — all covered in plastic cleaners bags — filled eight racks. Hoods, caps and tassels filled six filing cabinets.

The official ordering deadline is April 21, but Nickell and Train said they try to accommodate late requests as well. "I've delivered caps and gowns to professors right before commencement," Train said.

Most orders come in on time, though, and Train and Nickell said they aim to get the caps and gowns delivered about a week before commencement. That way, Nickel said, the inevitable "panic calls" can be dealt with. "If something is wrong or doesn't fit, we have time to fix it."

What size gown a person gets is usually dictated by his or her height, with gowns available for people from 4-foot-10 to 6-foot-4. Cap sizes are based on head circumference, from 21 5/8 to 27 1/2 inches. The wardrobe also includes a number of one-size-fits-all blue velvet and gold satin caps.

Accent colors

Doctoral hoods, which signify where a person received his or her doctorate, are also available — but only for University of California doctoral degrees. The UC hoods are black with accents of blue velvet and gold satin.

Hood accent colors representing U.S. universities cover a wide spectrum, from Harvard's crimson and Princeton's orange to Northwestern's purple and Hawaii's holly green. A hood also can include an accent color that denotes the bearer's academic specialty, such as science (gold-yellow) or agriculture (maize).

"I remember when I graduated from Penn State (with his bachelor's degree in 1990), and seeing all those different colors," Augustine said. "The parents were really into the robes and degrees and what it all meant. It's all very impressive, and that's a good thing for the university. It makes parents proud of their children and proud of us."

Augustine also thought of commencement regalia in another way: "It's our complete academic system on display in Technicolor."

According to a university directive, department offices are taking orders from faculty who wish to borrow commencement attire from the university. Orders must be received at the central storehouse by April 21. Another directive states that department offices also are taking orders for hoods for faculty members who hold non-UC doctorates and for faculty who hold UC degrees other than doctorates. The deadline for hood rental orders is April 28, and the fee is $20. A rush handling charge of $10 will be added to all hood orders received after April 28.

Students started custom

Associate Professor Matt Augustine talks about caps and gowns almost as easily as he does when talking about thermodynamics and chemical equilibrium in his Chemistry 2 lectures.

During an interview, he recited from a booklet titled Caps, Gowns and Commencements, first published in 1939, and noted this "fascinating" detail from U.S. university history: "It was the students themselves who wanted to wear caps and gowns, and the faculty went along."

The booklet states: "About 1885 there was a widespread student movement in America to wear caps and gowns at commencement ceremonies. The graduating students seemed to feel a need for a significant and dignified apparel for the occasion, and the democratic as well as the traditional qualities of the cap and gown appealed to them.

"The faculties were quick to approve this practical and dignified graduation dress, and soon members of the faculty themselves adopted the custom of wearing gowns at academic ceremonies."

At the time, academic gowns were already the norm in Europe. They stemmed from the 12th century when men and women of all walks of life wore gowns, "that is, long, full-flowing robes," according to Caps, Gowns and Commencements.

As fashions changed, "the scholars kept with the original styles, both because they were prescribed by university statute and because 'it is honourable and in accordance with reason that clerks to whom God has given an advantage over the lay folk in their adornments within, should likewise differ from the lay folk outwardly in dress,' " a quote taken from "a solemn enactment passed in 1358 at Oxford against the tailors, who were trying to shorten the length of the university gowns."

— Dave Jones

Media contact(s)

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,