Monday, April 30, 2012


Harry Potter? No - philosophy graduates.

As the Great Day of our graduation with a Master of Arts in Philosophy - one each - approached, my friend said she thought she might give the academic dress a miss - there’s the hiring fee, after all, and she wondered if perhaps she could go in her kids’ Harry Potter cape with a wand...but I said, “how often do you get to wear that kind of thing?” So we both dressed up in the fancy dress.

The origins of today’s academic dress - the robe, hood and classical cap - go back to the first universities in medieval times. To identify themselves as sober scholars, student wore Students wore long, sober clothing. It’s questionably whether the sobriety of students has persisted, but the academic clothing is still dusted off on graduation day. Many Oxbridge colleges, schools and some ecclesiastical services still use the gown and hood, however it is usually only seen at degree ceremonies.

The academic dress found in most universities in the British Commonwealth and the United States is derived from that of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which was a development of academic and clerical dress common throughout the medieval universities of Europe.

Graduands gather.

And what do they wear under that? According to tradition, formal or sober (there’s that word again) clothing is typically worn beneath the gown. For example, men would often wear a dark suit with a white shirt and tie, or clerical clothing, military or civil uniform, or national dress, and women would wear equivalent attire. Clearly nobody had mentioned this bit to the Russian blond who took home an MSc...she seemed to favour what we might call the “lady-of-the-night” look in fashion; or perhaps we could call it “this-is-how-I-got-my-degree”...

But I digress. I am not being sober.

According to Wikipedia:

Some older universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, have a prescribed set of dress (known as subfusc) to be worn under the gown. Though some universities are relaxed about what people wear under their gowns, it is nevertheless considered bad form to be in casual wear or the like during graduation, and a number of universities may bar finishing students from joining the procession or the ceremony itself if not appropriately dressed.
Luckily for Svetlana, Birkbeck is not so picky.

Caps, hoods and gowns.

When looking into this question of academic dress, I found here that there are actually people who give their time and talents to its many niceties:

There is a distinction between different types of academical dress...gowns, hoods and caps are categorised into their shape and patterns by the Groves classification system, which is based on Nicholas Groves's document, Hood and Gown Patterns.This lists the various styles or patterns of academic dress and assigns them a code or a Groves Classification Number. For example, the Cambridge BA style gown is designated [b2] and a hood in the Cambridge full-shape is designated [f1], etc. Because the universities are free to design their own academicals using a wide range of available gown, hood and cap patterns, colours and materials at their and the robemaker's disposal, the academicals of two given universities rarely clash with each other.

Now, there’s a few remarkable things about this information, Firstly, I draw your attention to the word “academicals”, which is a perfectly lovely word that I never knew before. Secondly, I draw your attention to Nicholas Groves and his Groves Classification Numbers, because without Mr Groves, where would we be? Lost, that’s where, not knowing our tassels from our hoods. I suggest a toast to Nicholas Groves. Oh, wait...that’s not very sober.

More caps, hoods and gowns.
And there’s more:
The Burgon Society was founded in 2000 to promote the study of academic dress. Its publications and activities examine the history and current use of academic dress and in 2011 it published the third edition of Shaw's reference book on British and Irish academical dress.The Society hosts a conference each spring at which recent research is presented.
A Society! A Conference, for heaven’s sake! About academic dress! Well, I may be the proud recipient of a Masters degree in Philosophy - and have received it right soberly and in the correct outfit - but it’s clear that there’s always something new for me to learn.

I looked just like that! Sober!

The modern gown is derived from the roba worn under the cappa clausa, a garment resembling a long black cape. In early medieval times, all students at the universities were in at least minor orders, and were required to wear the cappa or other clerical dress, and restricted to clothes of black or other dark colour. The gowns most commonly worn, that of the clerical type gowns of Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Master of Arts (MA), are substantially the same throughout the English-speaking world. Both are traditionally made of black cloth, (although occasionally the gown is dyed in one of the university's colours) and have the material at the back of the gown gathered into a yoke. The BA gown has bell-shaped sleeves, while the MA gown has long sleeves closed at the end, with the arm passing through a slit above the elbow. In the Commonwealth, gowns are worn open, while in the United States it has become common for gowns to close at the front, as did the original roba.

Birkbeck Graduation Day

But what of the particular fancy dress that we Philosophy grads donned for our Big Day? I looked up the regulations of our conferring university, the University of London, and here’s the scoop:

University of London Regulations on Academic Dress:

Postgraduate Taught Degrees: (that’s us)
The hood shall be of black  corded silk fully  lined and edged on cowl, cape and
neckband for three-eighths of an inch with silk of the colour indicated below:
Master of Arts (MA): Russet brown
The gown shall be of black stuff or silk with long closed sleeves, the same shape as for the Cambridge MA but with the sharp angle of the ogee curve on the bottom of the sleeve rounded off.
A black cap of the square mortar-board pattern with a black tassel.  A woman may
wear a soft black (Oxford) cloth cap. (Didn’t know that - we wore our mortar boards).
All present & correct

Having filled in all the background on the fancy dress, I can report that the ceremony, though missing an inspiring Commencement Address of any kind - and, as such, I want my money back - went off free of hitches. Though just in case you were thinking otherwise, I should mention that they didn’t actually give us the degree (i.e. the bit of paper) as we promenaded across the stage. Just a handshake from the Master. They said they’d post the bit of paper later. It was like a virtual graduation ceremony, really.

Birkbeck may have skinted on Commencement addresses and bits of paper, but I must say they were generous with a wine reception afterwards, at which all pretense at sobriety - such as it was - was abandoned.

But we were philosophical about it. After all, that’s what we’re qualified for.

Celebrating with afternoon tea at The Ritz

Medieval fancy dress abandoned, but not the important traditions.

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