Academic dress is about the caps, gowns and hoods worn by students, graduates and officials of schools, colleges and universities. Academic caps and gowns, or “academicals,” as academic dress is more properly called, date from the Middle Ages, and the first European and En glish colleges and universities. Most of these were schools for theologians, and students and teachers alike simply adopted the standard clerical dress the “cappa,” or plain, ankle-length cassock, and, when appropriate, a biretta, a stiff, square cap with a tuft on top, which eventually evolved into the modern tassel.
Why We Need To Wear Academic Dress?
The cappa was the simplest of the toga-like clerical gowns and, therefore, the least costly and most appropriate for “clerks,” or clerical students. Initially, gown colors indicated ecclesiastical rank or a particular order. As in today’s Roman Catholic Church, scholars and lesser clergy wore black; bishops and monsignors, purple; cardinals, red; and the pope wore white.
The colors themselves were symbolic of various elements of the passion of Christ — red being a symbol of Christ’s blood, and so on. Only higher level clergymen wore birettas, whose colors also indicated a clergyman’s rank. Under agreements between church and crown, the distinctive clerical dress rendered all wearers personally inviolable and immune from secular courts.
In the mid-14th century, some individual colleges and universities began to adopt cappas with distinctive shapes and colors. Doctors in the superior faculties also adopted distinctive colors. The materials from which cappas were made varied according to temperature and sea- son. Because scholars were forbidden to wear birettas, they used fur “hoods” to cover their heads in winters and wore tippets, or long black scarves, over their robes to keep warm.
With the gradual secularization of universities in the 16th and 17th centuries, baccalaureate and then undergraduate scholars began wearing birettas, and hoods gradually disappeared. Today’s academic hood is actually a variation of the tippet. Its color varies according to the wearer’s degree and college or university.
No longer restricted to college and university students, academicals are worn by graduating students at all levels of education, including even elementary school students in some communities. The biretta’s shape was changed to that of a “mortar board” in the 19th century to reduce the complexity and cost of manufacturing by standardizing the shape and size of the upper part of the headpiece.