For most universities graduation brings the only occasion that academic dress is worn. In the main this is an occasion that requires a hire company as graduands aren’t going to need it again. Universities tend to hire it for their staff, so most don’t own a set. This has meant a fairly stable economy for the academic dress hire companies; growth in the sector has seen a rise in the number of institutions and ceremonies.
This looks like a stable business, after all Ede & Ravenscroft have been in business since 1689. One new company, Marston Robing, have branched out into offering extra services such as children’s graduation gowns. In his affectionate summary of the fun of graduation, Paul Greatrix notes that there’s now a disruptive company Graduation Attire, offering a service direct to the graduate.
No doubt this will challenge some university ceremony organisers – the ties that a university has with its gown provider are often very long, and as Paul notes, there are challenges in getting the colours or patterns just right. Dig out the academic dress regulations for your university and you’ll find a set of exacting requirements (helpfully collated by the wonderful Burgon Society here). Although the description of gowns and hood may look similar in principle, look carefully and you’ll soon see that the claret and blue combinations for PhDs at Nottingham and Southampton are as distinctive as the claret and blue combinations for Aston Villa and West Ham. There’s a disclaimer offered by Graduation Attire:
Whilst our hoods are normally very suitable for use at Graduations, we are always slightly cautious about recommending this where we are not the Official Robe maker. Usually a University will have a contract with an official supplier and you may not be allowed to cross the stage if you are not wearing full and correct academic dress. Our hoods will conform to the regulations involved but may differ in shade from those provided by the Official Robe Maker and this may make you look different from your colleagues as you cross the stage. Since it is your responsibility to ensure you wear the correct academic dress at your Graduation and it is such an important day for you and your guests, we strongly recommend you explore all options with the Official Robe Maker first.
Although having an ‘Official Robe Maker’ makes sense, it’s not obligatory. In Oxford, where academic dress features much more in the daily life of the university, there is no monopoly provider.
University Hoods and How to Make Them
But what if there was another way of disrupting the monopoly?
The Girls’ Own Paper launched after women had won the right to enter examinations at English universities, and its advice column carried useful details on how to be admitted etc. More fabulously, they had a stupendous article which noted that women had ‘an equal right to disport themselves in the distinctive hood of their degree whensoever and wheresoever they may deem fit’ (Vol1 no36). But, they noted, there was the problem of the costliness of these articles. The answer was that the ‘cost may be greatly reduced by making at home’ and that the paper would ‘place within reach of our girls an additional means of bestowing a most useful and acceptable gift upon father, brother or cousin’.
The article gives a history of academic dress, and sets out the various different colours of the hoods, each denoting the different degree. The reader is advised to see an example of a hood before ordering their silk as the colours are unique: ‘Palatinate purple [Durham] is a pale tint, more nearly approaching the mauve or lilac of a milliner, yet not quite like either of these’. The texture is also described: ‘the glossy black silk used as alining to the Divinity hoods is the bright glacé silk, in popular use for ladies dresses before the rage for dull, heavy cords set in.
Then comes the instructions on how to actually make them. Having laid out your black silk, a white silk lining then laid on it, with a further black binding (details available on request).
The Oxford version is much less complicated (one of those rare occasions when Oxford is less complicated than anything). The BA hood being lined with fur and the MA hood with crimson silk. The BMus and BCL hoods are made of an ‘ordinary blue corded silk, such as is used for ladies dresses, of not too pale a shade’.
Equipped with these instructions, and hopefully an existing hood to cut an accurate pattern from, the author hopes and believes that ‘by a careful study of these directions a very successful hood may be made’.
The admission of women to British universities was the most extraordinarily disruptive act. It’s dangerous to assume the motives of the editors of the Girls Own Paper, but I like to think this article is being both practical and also wonderfully subversive. Yes; women could make hoods for their fathers and brothers, but also they could now ‘don those bright distinctive badges of their well won honours’ for themselves. Good luck if you want to make your own hood – but just reflect on how marvellous it is that so many people can now ‘disport themselves in the distinctive hood of their degree whensoever and wheresoever they may deem fit’.