Saturday, December 19, 2009

Backstage: Academic frippery, explained

After the closing processional, in the bowels of the arena.

I love the ceremony associated with commencement. I love the colors, the formality, the symbolism. I love that it reaches back, deep into the tradition of the academy of learning. The hood--that draped fabric with all the color that is worn over the shoulders--evolved from the cleric's cowl, worn for warmth in the cold halls of the early universities. The hoods fold back to reveal the silk colors of the schools from which we obtained our terminal degrees, and marks our individual academic lineages.  In this way, it links us to other institutions of learning and represents a kind of academy family tree.

The width of the velvet on the hood varies according to whether it represents a bachelors, masters, or doctoral degree, and the color of the velvet on the collar denotes the field of study. For example, the color blue symbolizes a Doctor of Philosophy, but you may choose to have gold velvet instead, which represents the field of science (most Ph.D.s simply choose what is call "Ph.D. blue").

That fold in the rear of the hood creates a little pocket, and I once was told by a colleague that traditionally, if the students liked a monk's teaching, they would slip coins in there. I related this story once while waiting in the faculty line for commencement to begin, and when I got home, I found a dollar bill in the pocket of my hood.

My esteemed colleagues, in all their glorious frippery, lined up offstage behind the faculty banner.

The cut of the robes is also symbolic, with Bachelors, Masters, and Doctoral all slightly different. Faculty may elect to have a robe in the colors of his or her school's terminal degree, but most choose a black robe. Velvet chevrons on the sleeves are only found on doctoral robes, and these are usually in the color that represents the field of study, though you may also choose black instead. Sometimes there is trim around the chevrons, and that only means that you were willing to shell out the extra $80 for it. Finally, while the mortar board is symbolic of all graduates, the velvet tam is worn only by those who hold doctorates.

The handsomest professor in the Department of Philosophy and his chair, in their velvet tams.

And speaking of money, those robes and hoods cost an enormous amount of it--from about $500-$1000, depending on the quality of the cloth and any extras you want on there (which is why many opt not to have the additional trim). Suffice it to say mine cost more than the dress I wore for my wedding. It is, in fact, the nicest outfit I own, and though I wear it for five ceremonies a year, I probably ought to be buried in it to further amortize the cost.

(For those of you planning to save up to buy yours, the cheapest cloth, poplin, is fine, but very hot during August graduation. In fact, all that ceremonial velvet on the robes and hoods make them generally very, very hot, regardless of the time of year. I wear shorts and a T-shirt under mine for the May and August commencements, and I still sweat buckets.)

Post-ceremony celebration with a recent August graduate. You can see my purple T-shirt under the robe, which I usually open as soon as I get offstage after the closing processional, in order to try to cool off a little.

I am deeply honored to be a member of the academy, and when our students graduate, they become part of that tradition, as well.

Faculty and students leaving the arena together.

Godspeed to the Class of 2009. May your lives be wonderful.


  1. Hope you don't hold this against you. I've tagged you with an Honest Scrap Award at

  2. Goodness, James, I don't hold it against you _or_ me! Thank you very much indeed.

  3. I used to really enjoy the grad ceremonies at my first alma mater (NS Agricultural College) because I knew all the professors, their degrees, where they had gone to school. One of them, my favourite botany/plant path prof, had gotten his PhD from Cornell and his robes were different from anyone else's. Thanks for explaining some of the mystique. I didn't keep my robes from any of my graduations, just the tassels off the mortarboards.

  4. Expensive, hot, awkward, no uniformity while standing in line.... I just ead that there are 30% + fewer humanities tenure tack jobs offered thsi year, and it's expected to steadily drop as colleges hire adjuncts for cheap. I wonder if I'll ever have tenue. Or if I really want it.

  5. Jodi--I often wonder what people think about all the colors while they are sitting through the ceremony for their loved ones, so I thought it might be fun to explain it.

    Benjamin--The Academy has some rough years ahead of it, as you well know. We need good people, so I hope you can hang in there.

  6. Interesting! I never knew anything about the PhD robes... just that they were fancy and I liked them (partially because they remind me of something out of Harry Potter). But now I know, thanks for sharing.

  7. Eileen--you'll be going through graduation soon yourself!

  8. Ah, loved the information. When I graduated from Oklahoma University in the College of Arts and Sciences with a degree in Journalism (LOL, a lot of words), we rented our gowns, but it was expensive. For once in my life, I didn't procrastinate, and got my gown a week or so before from the great dusty building. It was this wonderful heavy wool. Then, a few days before graduation, the entire building burned the the ground. Many students had plastic gowns for their graduation. I felt badly for them. Loved reading this and remembering. Perhaps, I'll get a higher degree one day, what about a Masters in Horticulture?
    I loved your line about it being more expensive than your wedding dress.~~Dee


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