The history of academic dress goes back hundreds of years to the chill universities where cap, gown and hood were needed for covering and warmth.
In 1321, the University of Coimbra mandated that all Doctors, Bachelors, and Licentiates must wear gowns. In the latter half of the 14th century, excess in apparel was forbidden in some colleges and prescribed wearing a long gown. By the time of England's Henry VIII, Oxford and Cambridge began using a standard form of academic dress, which was controlled to the tiniest detail by the university.
Not until the late 1800s were colors assigned to signify certain areas of study, but they were only standardized in the United States. European institutions have always had diversity in their academic dress, but American institutions employ a definite system of dress thanks to Gardner Cotrell Leonard from Albany, New York. After designing gowns for his 1887 class at Williams College, he took an interest in the subject and published an article on academic dress in 1893. Soon after he was asked to work with an Intercollegiate Commission to form a system of academic apparel.
The system Gardner Cotrell Leonard helped form was based on gown cut, style and fabric; as well as designated colors to represent fields of study.
For example, sleeves in the bachelor's gown are pointed, in the masters gown they are oblong and the arms project at the elbow, and in the doctor's gown they are bell shaped. Only the doctor's gown has velvet facing. The hood is lined with the official colors of the degree issuing institution and the outside trimming of the hood signifies the subject in which the degree was obtained:
|Arts, Letters, Humanities|
|Commerce, Accountancy, Business|
|Fine Arts, including Architecture|
|Forestry, Environmental Studies, Sustainability|
|Philosophy, Political Science|
|Public Administration, including Foreign Service|
|Veterinary Science, Husbandry|
For more about the history and guidelines from academic ceremony costumes, check out An Academic Costume Code and An Academic Ceremony Guide by the American Council on Education.