Academic dress originated in medieval costume. At the time when universities first came into being in the 12th century, everyone wore gowns (long, full-flowing robes) to help keep warm in unheated buildings. There were, of course, considerable differences in elegance and style between the extremes of the social and economic scales, and in many cases the king decreed just who could wear what.
The academic costume – caps and gowns and hoods – worn today is particularly striking, for commencement is one of the few occasions in the United States at which academic dress is worn. By contrast, in English colleges and universities, both students and faculty until recently wore their gowns in class, in university dining halls, and at all official occasions.
Over the gown would often be worn a cloak (usually with a cowl or hood attached), just as we wear coats today. The origin of the cap is more obscure. The “mortarboard” cap that is usually worn today seems to have been introduced at Oxford University sometime in or before the 17th century.
In 1894, the American Intercollegiate Commission decided that all robes would be black – bachelors´ gowns to be made of worsted stuff with pointed sleeves, masters´ gowns of silk with long, closed sleeves, doctors´ gowns of silk with longer sleeves and faced with black velvet from hem to neck and back. They also carried three velvet bands around each sleeve about the elbow. Hoods were made of the same material as the gowns, the length varying with the degree. The lining of the hood indicated the university by its colors. The border of the hood indicated the academic discipline in which the degree was earned.