Dec 15

Academic Trivia #3: Graduation Edition! Why do professors wear different colored robes at graduation?

In honor of graduation week, I bring you the Graduation Edition of Academic Trivia!  Today’s question: Why do professors wear different colored robes at graduation?  The color and style of the academic regalia worn by professors at commencement and other university ceremonies indicates three important things: 1) the institution where the professor studied, 2) the degree held, and 3) the area of study. 

While the standard color of academic robes is black, you will see a rainbow of colors at our graduation ceremony because often universities will have colored robes to reflect their institution.  For example, my robes, believed by many to be the best looking at the ceremony (and by “many” I mean “me”) are royal purple with gold piping to reflect the school colors of the University of Washington.  Similarly, you will see many deep blue robes with gold piping at our ceremonies because they are the colors of the University of California system (both Professor Burgess and Professor Jacquemet sport these robes as alums of UC Berkeley).  Some robes, however, are standard black with velvet colored panels down the front and colored bars on the sleaves (such as Professor Ho’s black robes with yellow panels and bars reflecting the University of Iowa Bumblebees, I mean Hawkeyes).  Check out Professor Ho and I in our robes here:

Me and Professor Ho hanging out on the Kalmanovitz Hall Terrace in our robes

Academic robes and caps also reflect the degree held.  The most elaborate robes, indicated by the gown and hood, reflect the highest degree earned: the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).  These doctoral robes have full, bell shaped sleeves and the aforementioned velvet panels and bars on the sleeves.  The doctoral hood (which can’t actually be worn as a hood, so it is no help if it is raining) is four feet long with wide panels on either side.  The Master’s robes have long, narrow sleeves and a three and a half foot hood, the Bachelor’s robes have long pointed sleeves and a three foot long hood.  Neither the Master’s or Bachelor’s robes are trimmed. 

Our hoods: purple and gold for the University of Washington (me) and gold for the University of Iowa (Professor Ho). It looks like I am dancing, but really I am trying to show the bell shaped sleeve of the doctoral robe

The inside of every hood is colored to reflect the institution which granted the degree.  For you graduates out there, your hood will be lined with a gold chevron on “a field of Kelly green” to reflect USF’s colors. 

The inside of a USF hood... gold on a field of Kelly green

Areas of study are also reflected through the robes.  In particular, your undergraduate hoods are lined in colored velvet that reflects your area of study: Communication Studies majors are colored white to reflect Arts and Sciences, business is drab, education is light blue, science is yellow. 

You will also see a variety of caps, or mortar boards, at graduation.  Holders of doctoral degrees can have a gold tassel, while most others are black.  The standard issue mortar board is square, although some institutions have variations, including those with six points and those with eight points.  Some doctoral caps are puffy, and some institutions are known by their very unique caps. 

Academic regalia dates back to medieval times and is thought to have been modeled on the robes worn by clerics.  While we only wear our robes at graduation and other formal university ceremonies, in the “days of yore” (or in Harry Potter) they were worn all the time (and truth be told, on chilly days and/or bad hair days here I sometimes want to bring back the tradition). 

Congratulations to all of the students who will be graduating this week!  Later this week, a special blog post honoring our Communication Studies graduates!

Do you have an academic trivia question that you want answered in a future post?  Contact me at edoohan@usfca.edu.


  1. Teresa Garcia

    Hi Professor Doohan,

    Great post! I’ve always wondered what those colors meant!


  2. An Mai

    “Business is drab…” That made me laugh out loud! Congrats to all the graduates!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>