College graduation day looks strikingly similar to graduation days of yore, with soon-to-be grads filling Franklin Field wearing black undergraduate robes and tasseled mortarboards. Faculty, wearing the robes and hoods from their graduate institutions, are a more vibrant group. Penn’s red and blue doctoral robes mingle with Harvard’s crimson and Columbia’s pale blue. An Oxford robe might appear, and hats of all shapes, sizes, and levels of puffiness adorn the scholars’ heads. This could be 2017, 1717, or 1117— academic dress has a history dating to medieval Europe.
Academic dress in the United States and Europe, also known as regalia, can be traced back to traditions begun by Oxford University (founded, by best estimates, in 1096), University of Cambridge (founded 1209), and Portugal’s University of Coimbra (founded 1290). When scholars wore robes and hoods in drafty libraries, hoods weren’t for decoration. They were to be worn as hoods. When hoods transitioned from functional to decorative, scholars began to add hats, and styles differ across institutions and countries. Square, flat caps become common in Britain, while French scholars adopted a fluted, pillbox style cap (très chic) and Spanish academics took a cue from Roman Catholic clerical dress and wore four-peaked, square hats called birettas.
The first U.S. universities were firmly rooted in the European tradition. However, while European universities generally set their own customs, U.S. academic dress is more standardized. Penn created internal standards for regalia in 1887; in 1895, that system was abandoned when representatives from leading academic institutions in the U.S. established a code to regulate the cut, color, style, and materials of the gowns. Additional adjustments to the code were made in 1932, and that was that.
From 11th-century scholars shivering by a fire to a parade of gowns at Franklin Field, wearing regalia has always symbolized academic achievement and commitment. Here, we take a look at some Penn Arts and Sciences professors, partying like it’s 1096.
Larry Silver, James and Nan Wagner Farquhar Professor of History of Art
Silver wears Harvard’s crimson robes, but the real story here is the mace he’s wielding. Like regalia, ceremonial maces have a long history. The earliest ceremonial maces were carried in royal processions and doubled as weapons. By the 14th century, maces were increasingly decorative and used in civic and academic processions.
The University mace Silver carries was a gift of the family of William Murray Gordon, M.D. 1910. It is adorned with the seal and arms of the University, the William Penn and Benjamin Franklin family coats-of-arms, a depiction of the Rittenhouse Orrery, and a thistle symbolizing the early ties of the University with the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Each year, the Dean of Penn Arts and Sciences invites a retiring professor to hold the mace at the College graduation. The invited professor is someone who has made a mark on undergraduate education in his or her time at the School.
Silver, retiring after 20 years in the History of Art department, says he had fun as the mace-bearer and adds, “It’s lighter than it looks!”