Early Academic Dress

History of Academical Dress

Academic Dress

Origin information on Academic Regalia in Medieval Europe

These two chapters, from different sources, cover a review of the history and origin of early academic dress in colleges and universities in Medieval Europe, sometimes also known as academical dress, academic regalia, and graduation cap and gown (see below for second article).

Excerpt from "Academical Dress in New Zealand", 2000, Chap 3: Early Academical Dress,
by Noel Cox, LLM(Hons) MA PhD GradDipTertTchg FRHistS FBS, Barrister of the High Court of New Zealand, Professor of Law, and Discipline Chairman of Law, Faculty of Business, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand.

Like judicial dress, academical(1) dress has its origins in the everyday dress of the mediæval clergy, whose ecclesiastical dress in turn probably derived from civilian attire at an earlier age. Mediæval university scholars had, as clerks, to wear the clerkly gown and the tonsure.(2)

It is improbable that a distinction was made at first between dress and various academic levels as the degrees of bachelor and master do not seem to have originated until the thirteenth century. No academical dress, as such, was accorded the undergraduate in the early middle ages. Academical dress was originally a distinction accorded only to masters, unless the founder of a college prescribed a special livery for members.(3)

Early regulations do not so much prescribe what members must wear as prohibit excesses. Statutes relating to the costume of members of the universities must be regarded more in the light of sumptuary regulations than as a requirement of academical dress as the term is now understood.(4)

The history of academical dress is closely linked to that of the university education. Academical gowns used today throughout the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world are generally identical to or closely modelled on those worn at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge.(5) Those two universities have longer and more elaborate sartorial histories than any other European universities.(6)

Although there have been few far-reaching changes since the Laudian code of 1636, the gowns of Oxford have fallen into chaos, not having been revised since 1770. The university had patterns created for itself in 1957,(7) and these new rules are outlined in the Statutes of the University of Oxford.(8) But the tendency has been to follow the much more logical Cambridge precedents, which are the result of the revision of its dress code in 1932-34. New Zealand universities follow the Cambridge pattern.


(1) The term academical dress is used in preference to academic dress, as academic is an adjective, and academical a noun. Other expressions commonly encountered are academicals, and academic regalia. Regalia is, of course, a particularly inappropriate term since it refers to the rights accorded to a sovereign by the civil law, and by derivation to the royal jewels used at solemn occasions, particularly the coronation. Its use for academic, or civic insignia or dress is incorrect.

(2) The illustration of scholars in Richard de Leycestria's Summa in the Cambridge University Library (CUL Add Ms 3471 saec. xii med/esc), fos 125ra-169vb), referred to by Dr Hackett, which shows neither the cappa or the pallium, but the robes of a professor of rhetoric of classical antiquity, should not be taken as authority for what was actually worn. See Hackett, Rev Fr Benedict, The Original Statutes of Cambridge University: The Text and its History (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970) 147.

(3) See Rait, Robert, Life in the Mediæval University (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1918) 100-1; Franklyn, Charles, "Academical Dress- a brief sketch from the twelfth to the twentieth century, with especial reference to doctors" in (1946-7) 9(2) Oxford 78 at 81.

(4) Hastings, Very Rev'd Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (first published 1895, new ed FM Powicke & AB Emden, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1936) vol 1 p 194. The sumptuary laws were mostly repealed in 1603, and had never been particularly effective.

(5) The expression gown would appear most appropriate for undress, with robe referring to the full dress.

(6) Hargreaves-Mawdsley, WN, A History of Academical Dress in Europe until the end of the Eighteenth Century (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1963) vii.

(7) Register of Colours and Materials of robes and Hoods for Degrees of the University of Oxford, prepared by the Oxford Branch of the National Federation of Merchant Tailors, approved by the Hebdomadal Council, and deposited in the University Archives 12 February 1957. See, Venables, DR and Clifford, RE, Academic Dress of the University of Oxford 2nd ed 1966 Oxford, 1st ed 1957).

(8) Statuta Universitis Oxoniensis (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1960).

The above excerpt was reprinted with permission of copyright owner


Academical DressBelow is graduation gown history and review of academic dress and academic regalia, excerpted from:

The History of Academical Dress in Europe
Until the End of the Eighteenth Century
By Hargreaves-Mawdsley, W. N.
Oxford University Press 1963
Reprinted Greenwood Press, Inc.
Westport, Connecticut 1978

The origin of Academical Dress

The evolution of academical costume is complicated by the secular and ecclesiastical contacts which characterized the universities at the time of their earliest development.

In the early days of the studia generalia, which owed their beginnings to the chapter schools, the masters and scholars, being at least in minor Orders, wore, as befitting secular clerks, some sober form of dress, loosely termed a vestimentum clausum, something closed.[1] Even in those countries such as Italy in which scholars were not necessarily regarded as clerks, [2] they were forced in the interests of discipline to use a uniform of some kind, which in fact would be much the same as that of the secular clerks. [3]

The dress which the secular clergy worse was in general character no different from that worn by the laity of all classes of the community. Everyone from highest to lowest wore, as did the clergy, a hood to protect the head in bad weather.[4] If priests wore their pluvial, a loose cape with a hood and with a hole for the head to pass through and a slit in front for the passage of the arms, [5] it was no different from the outer garment worn by any citizen.[6] There was only one exclusively clerical non-liturgical garment, the cappa clausa, [7] and even this was really no more than a development of the pluvial. In 1222 at the Council of Oxford Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Caterbury, ordered clerks to wear the cappa clausa, and he thus introduced into England the clerical outdoor dress already in use on the Continent. The result of this was that at Bologna, Paris, and Oxford and at subsequent universities the cappa clausa came to be regarded as the academical dress, at least for formal occasions, for Doctors of Theology and Masters of Arts, who as priests – nearly all Masters were in Orders – worse this garment before any particular form of academical dress had come to be established. Further, when in due course Langton’s rule about the use of the cappa clausa was more and more neglected by the clergy in general, the garment came to be regarded as an exclusively academical one.

As regards clerical head-dress also, its origin is to be found in lay fashion. Thus, the pileus, which became the typical clerical head-gear and, by the same process as that of the cappa clausa, the head-dress of the universities, was simply adopted by the Church at the Synod of Bergamo (1311), on which occasion clergy were ordered to wear it ‘after the manner of laymen’.[8]

At first the lay minorities at the universities, found for the most part in the Faculties of Civil Law and Medicine, must be supposed to have worn some dignified form of dress according to the lay fashion of the time. It is noticeable that the earliest statutes of universities concerning dress are rather sumptuary than anything else. In time, however, the authorities succeeded in obliging members of these faculties to wear a form of cappa, the cappa manicata, at least on formal occasions.

After the first stage during which the statutes concerning costume were somewhat vague, we find the authorities of all universities beginning to adopt a new and deliberate policy, that of accepting lay fashions in a modified and particularized form into the canon of academical requirement, thereby creating a true ‘academical dress’. A special shape and cut was what by the fourteenth century had become the essential feature of academical dress, but the significance of colour in such dress was not recognized until later.

From the late fifteenth century onwards the whole movements of everyday fashion was towards a shorter, less cumbersome dress in keeping with an active age, and the wide modifications of academical and legal costume were a mirror of that age. More than ever before the universities were open to outside influences. The Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum (1516) well illustrate the change in the intellectual climate in the universities of the day.

Then came the Reformation, resulting in upheavals which lasted for hundreds of years, during which period the discipline of collegiate life broke down everywhere except in England, France, Portugal, and Spain, and in a few universities in south Germany and Austria where the Old Church was more secure. In all other countries legislation about dress occurred less and less, and even when orders were published they were less than half-heartedly observed; until by the eighteenth century, when France was beginning to fall a victim to the anti-clericalism of the Philosophes, only in England, Spain, and Portugal was a recognized academical dress worn by members of universities on all occasions. An insular conservatism was the cause of its preservation in England as well as a determination to keep the strongholds of the Establishment of Oxford and Cambridge intake, while in the other two countries a powerful church discipline, which had scarcely been questioned, preserved it.

Examples of the Influence of Lay Fashion on Academical Dress

The hood was originally merely a useful head-covering. Long before it had been given up in ordinary dress, that is by about 1450,[9] it had become a recognized feature of the dress of academical persons. It is typical of the growth of specialized costume that a fashion abandoned in everyday life is appropriated by institutions, themselves strongholds of conservatism. The hood thus warn was small and close to the neck, and was joined to its ‘shoulder piece’ which covered the shoulders and the upper part of the arms, the two together in reality forming one article. For the most part in continental and English legal dress it remained unchanged, but in academical dress both in this country and elsewhere it was greatly modified during the sixteenth century. In England the academical ‘shoulder piece’ was abandoned during this period and the hood was worn alone, greatly elongated by 1592 as can be seen in an oil painting of that year by an anonymous artist of the founding of the Vicars’ Close at Wells.[10] The liripipe on the English hood, which first appears in the reign of Henry III,[11] was an appendage of it, and originally served a useful purpose, being used both to pull the hood on and off the head and to hold the hood in position by binding it round it and fastening it under the chin.[12]

On the Continent both hood and ‘shoulder piece’ were generally abandoned during the sixteenth century except in rectorial dress, but an equivalent of the English hood had by this time appeared. This was the scarf worn on the shoulder, variously called chausse, chaperon, and Sendelbinde, and was in fact a liripipe. It originated in an everyday fashion for headdress which was in vogue between 1420 and 1470, and which consisted of three parts, the roundlet, a ring of thick rolled material which fitted the head, the gorget, a piece of stuff sewn on to the inside of the roundlet and which hung down from it, and a liripipe (later to become the chaperon when the other parts of the dress were given up) like a long scraft to which roundlet and gorget were attached.[13] Originally worn on the head the roundlet and gorget after the middle of the fifteenth century were usually cast on either of the shoulders and hung down behind from the liripipe.[14]

When in the later fifteenth century this fashion began to disappear from ordinary dress, it was retained by men of official standing and particularly by professional and learned men.[15] Thus in France legal and court officials and academical persons wore the chaperon, the gorget sometimes being cut up so that several ends appeared hanging down, in which case it was known as the cornette.[16] The chaperon was also used in Germany where it was known as the Sendelbinde. In England, since the use of the hood was well established as part of academical costume long before the fifteenth century, the shoulder-scarf was not employed as a symbol of degree at the universities.[17] It was, however, used by great officials of the Crown.[18] Survivals of it are to be found in the little gathered piece of cloth on the lower left-hand corner ‘bridge’ yoke of the barrister’s gown, attached to which is a streamer coming over the left shoulder and hanging down in front,[19] and in the little tippet of Oxford and Cambridge proctors. The latter seems to have been worn by them in their capacity as officials.

The use of the pileus in the early Middle Ages has already been mentioned. Other varieties of head-dress for academical use were the result of fifteenth-century lay fashions. Thus the academical bonnet, much more full and looser than the original pileus, was derived from an ordinary fashion which first appeared in France in 1449.[20] Another variety, rigid and somewhatr square with a tump, known in later times as a biretta, appears as early as the middle of the fifteenth century worn by a figure on a choir stall in Ulm Cathedral.[21] The introduction about 1520 of a square cap at the University of Paris, which seems to have originated in Italy,[22] was a development of the true pileus, but the results of this development were very different. It was known as the pileus quadratus or bonnet carré, and our own square cap is a particular form of it.

By 1500 the general tendency in academical dress was to become more simple and comfortable, with the result that the heavy outer, closed dress being left off, the sleeved or sleeveless tabard, or some form of sleeved tunica, or other such dress, now the outer garment, assumed a new significance.

At the same time as this was happening, lay fashion was rapidly changing. There were two main features of this change; one was the opening of dress in front from about 1470 onwards, the other the elaboration and increase in size of the sleeves. After 1490, not only was the over-garment open in front, but it was thrown widely open, so that the lining of fur, which was afterwards placed in front in the form of two facings, could be seen.[23]

Various forms of sleeve appeared in lay fashions during the fifteenth century. There was the bag-sleeve, a tube of material through which the arm passed, sometimes called the glove-sleeve. This tube increased in length during the sixteenth century.

An example of the bag-sleeve showing embroidery in two places on the lower part of the thigh-length sleeve is to be seen in the brass of one not connected with a university, Lawerence Colston (1550), at Colston, Staffs.[24] A bag-sleeved gown is worn in his portrait by Cardinal Granvella (1517-86), minister of the Emperor Charles V.[25] Such is the origin of the England Master of Arts gown’s sleeve.

On the Continent the bell-sleeved gown, with a flap collar joined to the facings, from the sixteenth century onwards won in nearly all countries by doctors, was derived from late fifteenth century Italian lay fashion.[26] The same gown, worn academically, appears in the monument of the great Italian humanist Ficino (d. 1499), in the church of Sta Maria del Fiore, Florence.[27]

From a fashion of the later fifteenth century is also derived the winged-sleeved gown, which appeared as a feature of academical dress in England and elsewhere during the sixteenth century. It was an elaboration of a popular lay fashion of 1483.[28] It covered the upper part of the arm, and was used greatly in Germany and the Low Countries, and by graduates of the lay faculties at Oxford and Cambridge. The panel-sleeved (or false-sleeved) gown was a degenerate form of the winged-sleeved gown. This type, familiar to us from the Oxford commoner’s gown, was used also by continental students from the later sixteenth century, as can be seen from a print of a student of one of the theological colleges of Rome, which were founded as a result of the Counter-Reformation.[29] No more clear example of the lay character of this form of gown could be given than the brass of a gentleman of 1607 at Dersingham, Norfolk.[30] The winged-sleeve seems to have reached England later than elsewhere, for it does not appear to have become fashionable until the reign of Elizabeth.[31]

Lastyly there is the cloak-gown, allied to the gown with ‘streamers’, but originating in a Spanish fashion of the sixteenth century. It did not reach England directly, but the flap-collar on the English academical lay gown and undergraduyate gown may have been influenced by it via Italian fashions. It was the last proper academical dress used by German students.[32]

The Influence of Forms of Association on Academical Dress

Three forms of association grew up in universities. The first of these was the Faculty, less strong in the English universities than elsewhere, the second the College, strong at first at all universities, but later only really so in France, England, Spain, and the Austrian Netherlands, and the third the Nation, strong at first in France and Italy, and in due course in Germany.

The first of these kinds of association was a result of the gathering together of those who taught the same subject and who found that only by a united effort could their common aims be made known to their university at large. It was also secured them against the unqualified, who might try to set up for themselves at the university. The second was a corporate body, which enjoyed the benefits of an endowment; and the third was an association based on nationality to defend the rights of an alien in foreign land.

The faculties, which developed at Paris in the course of the thirteenth century, played a more or less conspicuous part in the affairs of subsequent universities, particularly that of Arts, membership of which at Oxford and Cambridge was well as abroad was necessary to full membership. The other faculties were those of Theology, Canon Law, Civil Law, and Medicine.

Although the first Paris college, the Collège de Dix-Huit, was founded as early as 1180, it was not until the foundation of the Collège Sorbonne in 1257 that a college became an organization independent of an ecclesiastical corporation other than the university. Of this latter types were all the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge and those of Paris which were founded after this time.[33] In Spain and Italy the college system, though in being, played a much less important part in the life of universities.

Nations appeared at Bologna at the beginning of the thirteenth century as subdivisions of the Collegia,[34] but at Paris they emerged at the same period as masters’ associations within the large Faculty of Arts.[35]

It is natural in view of the practice of the great guild movement, the movement towards association n every trade and profession, which affected town-life in Europe at this time, to expect that members of faculties, colleges, and nations, as the case might be, should wear some particular dress of uniform shape and colour betokening the group to which they belonged.

Some examples of faculty colours will show that no exact code of colours was observed at all universities, but there were certain tendencies. Thus black at Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge, and white at Salamanca, Coimbra, and Perpignan were the colours of the Faculty of Theology. Green, yellow, or sanguine were at various universities the colours of the Faculty of Medicine, while blue of various shades very often denoted the Faculty of Philosophy, and in such differently placed universities as those at Perpignan, Coimbra, and Ingolstadt. The most constant of the colours was scarlet for Canon Law, but even this by no means always held good. Indeed, as can ve seen from inventories [36] such as those of Oxford regents, all kinds of colour were used by academical persons as late as the middle of the fifteenth century.[37] Yet it was in the course of this century that faculty colours appeared, a significant symbolism of association.

In some countries, in England and Spain especially, founders of colleges ordered certain kinds of dress to be worn by members of their foundations.

As far as the nations were concerned a special dress was discouraged by the authorities, who with good reason feared that sartorial distinctions might encourage the rivalries and antagonisms which these divisions tended to promote. It was, however, worn by the various nations at the University of Prague until the sixteenth century at the appropriate national festivals.


[1] A. Renan, Le Costume en France, p. 30.
[2] H. Rashdall, iii. 386, n. I.
[3] See the reconstruction of students’ dress in D.R. Hartley, Mediaval Costume and Life, p. 15, pls. A and B, and p. 17.
[4] R.A.S. Macalister, Ecclesiastical Vestments, pp. 254-5.
[5] F. Cabrol and H. Leclercq, Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, iii, cols. 370 and 376.
[6] W.B. Marriott, Vestiarium Christianum, p. 167; C.D. Du Cange, Glossarium, s.v. Pallium pluviale.
[7] D. Wilkins, Conceilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, i. 589, ‘Council of Oxford’, § xxviii.
[8] H. Norris, Church Vestments, p. 161.
[9] C.W. and P. Cunnington, Handbook of mediaval Costume, p. 111.
[10] H. Parnell, The College of Vicars Choral, Wells, pp 6-8, and ill., p. 7
[11] C.H. Ashdown, p. 56, fig 72.
[12] C.H. Ashdown, p. 143, fig 175.
[13] W.M. Webb, The Heritage of Dress, pp. 114, figs. 122-3, and 115, fig. 125; C.W. and P. Cunnington, pp. 113 and 115.
[14]For example, the citizen of Bruges who appears in an illumination in the manuscript (1475 – 1500) of Vasco de Lucena’s edition of Quintus Curtius executed at Bruges in the von Essen Collection, Skokloster, Sweden (illustrated in Gyllena Böcker, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, pl. xxii).
[15] D.R. Harley, p. 91.
[16] E. Pasquier, Les Recherches de la Frabce, pp. 382D-383B; J. Malliot and P. Martin, Recherches sure les costumes, iii. 88.
[17] It appears on certain English brasses, but is worn by laymen, or clergy in ecclesiastical and not academical costume. For examples see H. Haines, A Manual of Monumental Brasses, pp. lxxviii and cciii.
[18] See the portrait of Lord Burghley (d. 1598) in the National Portrait Gallery, London, No. 362.
[19] W.M. Webb, op. cit., pp. 163, fig. 141, and 164.
[20] D, Diderot and J. le R. D’Alembert, Encyclopédie, ii. 324 a-b, s.v. Bonnet.
[21] W. Lübke, Ecclesiastical Art in Germany during the Middle Ages, p. 218, Fig. 157.
[22] C.D. Du Cange, s.v. Birretum
[23] H. Haines, pp. cciv and ccxxxix, e.g. brass of John Colman (1506) at Little Waldingfield, Suffolk.
[24] C.H. Ashdown, p.231, fig. 318.
[25] W. von Seidlitz, Allgemeines historisches Porträtwerk, portrait of Granvella in pt. 3-4.
[26] For an example of this gown worn by a rich Italian gentleman of 1494 see I. Brokke, Western European Costume, I, coloured plate opp. P. 102.
[27] M.Z. Boxhornius, Monumenta illustrium virorum, et Elogia, p. 45.
[28] C. Martin, Civil Costume, no. 28.
[29] P. Bonanni, Ordinum religiosorum in ecclesia militanti catalogus, iii, no. xxxvi, ‘Student of the College of Fuccioli’, and see also nos. xxxiv, xxxv, and xlii.
[30] J.S. Cotman, Sepulchral Brasses, ii, p.88. John Aubrey proves the lay character of this gown when he writes: ‘When about 1632 I learnt to read of John Brome the Clark of Kingston St. Michael, his old father (above eighty)…daily worse a gown like an undergraduate’s at Oxford, with sleeves pinned behind, etc.’ (A. Powell, John Aubrey, p. 31).
[31] See, for example, the portrait at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, of Sir Walter Mildmay (d. 1589) in court dress.
[32]It was even used by clergy, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, as an out-of-door dress.
[33] Thirty-seven Paris colleges are named in a list of those existing in the fifteenth century (Oxford, Bodl. Libr. MS Twyne 2, fo. 101). One Oxford college, University College, is known to have been in existence in 1249, but it does not appear as a true corporation until after the Collège Sorbonne.
[34] Not to be confused with colleges. They were more like halls (hostels) for foreign law students.
[35] For a full account of the nations see P. Kibre, The Nations in the Mediaeval Universities.
[36] For example, H.E. Salter, Registrum Cancellarii (O.H.S.), i. 44 and 70.
[37] That it was still cut rather than colour which was significant even in 1434 as betokening the wearer’s degree can be understood from a papal letter of that year in which a regular priest, an Augustinian, was allowed to wear the habit of costume wont to be worn by secular Masters of Arts and Doctors of Divinity of Oxford provided that it was of the colour of the habit of the priest’s Order (Calendar of Papal Registers, ed. J. A. Twemlow, Papal Letters, viii. 504).
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