The History of Academic Dress

From University of London Academic Dress by Philip Goff, FBS.

Academic Dress has its origin in the everyday dress of men and women in the Middle Ages. This consisted of a tunic (or toga) over which might be worn a cloak. Over the tunic or cloak, to protect the head and shoulders, would be a hood.

The ancient universities began as communities of scholars and teachers in a religious school around a great cathedral or monastery. Students at the early european universities, Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, for example, were clerics (clerks). They were not necessarily priests but were, at least, in minor holy orders. As such they were subject to church law and discipline and were expected to dress soberly. Their dress, like that of the parish clergy, was quite similar to that of everybody else but was particularly distinguished by being long and closed. Their outer cloak was closed with one or two openings for the hands.

This closed cloak or cappa clausa was ordered for all secular clergy by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the Council of Oxford in 1222 to bring English clergy into line with those in the rest of Catholic Europe. The monastic clergy, of course, wore their various habits and were easier to regulate. Whilst this order was frequently ignored by parish clergy – often reprimanded for their zeal for the latest fashions – the universities retained the cappa clausa and it became the main item of academic dress at Bologna, Paris and Oxford.

The closed cloak still exists in some forms today, such as the parliamentary robe worn by bishops at a State Opening or Coronation; and in the cope worn by the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University (or his deputy) when conferring degrees. It is a long scarlet robe with a deep hood lined with fur.

In the second half of the 15th century, the trend in fashion moved towards shorter, more open costume – reflecting the new openness in the world of ideas, learning and the arts. The heavy outer dress was increasingly left off and the undergarment, the tunic or toga, became the outer garment.

From 1470 onwards, outer clothing was worn open in the front and sleeves increased in size and varied in style. From 1490 onwards, it was fashionable for linings or facings of silk or fur to be seen at the front of garments or in sleeves.

Putting on a graduation ceremony? You can add this page to your programme to give graduates an introduction to academic dress. All we ask is that The Burgon Society is credited with the copyright.