What Do the Colors on Doctoral Robes Mean?


The color, material and design of academic robes, caps, and hats is steeped in tradition and meaning. Traditional doctoral dress includes a black academic gown with velvet trim down the front, colored velvet across the sleeves and a cap.


  • Traditions regarding the nature of academic dress began in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1321, the University of Coimbra required that all doctors, licentiates and bachelors wore gowns. The standardization of colors for the gowns didn't come until much later, when the United States designated colors to indicate academic discipline in the 19th century.


  • The gown for doctoral degree candidates usually is black and has bell-shaped sleeves. The gown may be worn open or closed. The material can be light or heavy depending on climate as long as it follows the other rules. The front of the gown is trimmed with velvet and there are three bars of colored velvet along the sleeves. The three colored bars indicate the candidate's academic discipline. For example, white bars signify humanities, while law students get purple bars and journalism candidate's bars are crimson.


  • The colors of the trim of the hood are the colors of the university that is giving the degree. Although the tassels on the caps for bachelor's and master's degree students designate the student's discipline, the tassel for doctoral candidates typically is gold. Hoods for doctoral candidates also should be four feet long and have panels at the sides.


  • There are a few exceptions to the standard academic regalia. Members of religious orders are allowed to wear their customary religious habits. Likewise, military uniforms and outfits that are customary to a civil office also are acceptable.


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