Academic Regalia

“(The) wearing of gowns by judges, ministers, teachers, and scholars is an ancient and impressive custom…As the graduating students of American high schools, colleges, and universities march in academic procession on Commencement Day to receive their diplomas or degrees, they, too, (and perhaps, for some, only this once in their lives) wear the caps and gowns of this long tradition…For a moment, they are wearing an ancient regalia, the proud badge of belonging to a great profession, that of student. Holding hands with students past and students present in a chain which goes back into history. Every detail should be keyed to stress the occasion as adventure, a turning point, something memorable and important.”

Frank C. Baxter
Professor Emeritus of English
University of Southern California

At the end of the 19th century, colleges and universities in the United States were developing the kind of ruleless academic costume that emerged from the centuries in Great Britain. There and in the dominions each university adopted its own costume without regard to what other institutions had done. The result was a confusing array of caps, gowns, and particularly hoods, each one of which must be separately memorized.

Recognizing this problem, American institutions responded in 1895 by creating an Intercollegiate Commission to consider a uniform code for academic costume. The resulting Intercollegiate Code regulated the design or pattern of gowns and hoods and the colors and materials to be used. The code was subsequently adopted by almost all of the colleges and universities in the country. It is still in use today, although slightly modified by successor committees appointed by the American Council on Education.


The code provides for three types of gowns. Those for bachelors are made of black material and have long, pointed sleeves. They should be worn closed only, and should have no adornment. The master’s gown, also black, is made with an oblong sleeve, open at the wrist. The rear part of its oblong shape is square cut, and the front part has an arc cut away. It is also worn closed. The doctor’s gown is an elaborate costume marked by velvet panels down the front and around the neck as well as by three bars of the same material on the bell-shaped sleeves. It is cut much fuller than the other gowns and unlike them may be ornamented in color. (As a matter of practice, except in the areas of philosophy and law, dark blue and purple, respectively, faculty colors are rarely seen on the gown.)

The standard cap and gown are almost universally worn, but there are some outstanding deviations, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, New York, Chicago and the University of Southern California. Cardinal and gold doctoral
gowns were proposed for the university’s centennial by Dr. Jerome B. Walker, centennial director, in 1980. Cardinal gowns with yellow velvet panels were first worn during President James H. Zumberge’s inauguration in May 1981. For President Steven B. Sample’s 1991 inauguration, the design for doctoral gowns was modified, adding red velvet panels framed by bright gold braids.


Although there is an exception, rarely seen, for women which allows them to wear a soft cap, the mortarboard or Oxford type cap is worn. Only the doctor’s cap may be made of velvet. The tassel worn with the cap has three variations: (1) it may be black for any degree, (2) it may be in the color of the faculty (field of learning) in which the degree was granted, or (3) doctors and governing officials, only, may wear a tassel of gold metallic thread. Black tassels are worn at USC for all bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

The cap is an essential part of the academic costume and is worn with it at all times except, of course, when the men remove theirs during prayer or during the playing of the national anthem. The gold tassel of the doctor’s cap is so fastened that it drapes over the left front quarter of the cap. From this design it has become customary to leave the tassel draped over the left temple at all times.


Of all the components of the costume, the hood is the most symbolic. It makes clear the level of the degree, the faculty in which it was given, and the institution which awarded it. The level of the degree is shown by the size of the hood, the width of the velvet trimming, and, in the case of the doctors, by the shape. This same trimming identifies the faculty in which the degree is awarded. The hood is lined with the colors of the school awarding the degree; at USC, the lining is gold with a cardinal chevron.

The academic regalia worn by the participants in the commencement ceremony is not merely costume. It represents an unbroken chain uniting students and scholars since the time of the Middle Ages.


Prepared by Dr. G.A. Fleischer, Professor of Industrial and Systems
Engineering and University Marshal, 1983-87.