--Tassels: Dexter or Sinister?
--What is the status of nylon rabbit's fur?
--Does your tippet overlap your liripip?
While these questions may not loom large in the minds of today's graduates, they are of the utmost importance to expert observers of that short-lived phenomenon, the annual display of Doctoral Plumage.
Research dates the origins of Old World academic dress to the mid-12th century, at the University of Paris, where it evolved from ecclesiastical garb into the varied and colorful regalia that we know today.
Early on, the most splendid costumes were reserved for the higher-ranking degrees. An Oxford Bachelor of the 15th century was allowed only lamb's wool or badger's fur to line his academic hood; sendal (silk), miniver (ermine), and tartaran (tartan) were the trappings of Masters and Doctors.
In 1882 the Reverend Thomas William Hood, Vicar of Eldensfield, tried to list the burgeoning costumes of the time in his slender (although little-read) volume Degrees, Gowns (etc.) of British, Colonial, Indian and American Universities. A sampling of the hoods listed therein shows little order, but a rich and varied selection.
The University of Glasgow, for example, specifies for its B.Sc.--a hood of "black silk lined with gold colored silk (color of Whin Blossom--Ulex europae)," while its LL.B. requires a black silk hood, Cambridge pattern, lined with Venetian red (color of Clove).
Fur became a topic of conversation at Oxford when horrified dons discovered that tailors had begun using nylon fur instead of ermine or rabbit for fur linings and trim during World War II.
Appalled, the head clerk of the University Registry and the proprietor of an Oxford Tailor shop collaborated on a compendium of sartorial statutes. Handwritten on parchment and accompanied by swatches of materials, their leatherbound volume now reposes in the University Archives. It is their considered opinion that "any fur on an academic hood ought to come from an indigenous animal."
New World Order
In contrast to the Old World profusion of colors, furs, and furbelows, the New World Order of the toga scholastica, while not easily recognized, at least has some order in its speciation.
In 1895 an intercollegiate conference on academic gowns was held at Columbia University (with Harvard abstaining). Certain standards were set then and, while there were some revisions in 1932 and again in 1959, the complexities of the doctoral gown, Genus americus, can now be unraveled.
Harvard did finally conform to the academic code. The Corporation suggested in 1897 that all Harvard hoods should be lined in crimson.. Because of President Eliot's antipathy to academic finery, the suggestion was not adopted until 1902. The crimson Harvard Doctoral gown was not voted in by the Corporation until 1955.
The New World rules enable the viewer to tell the college conferring the degree, the level of the degree, and the faculty awarding the degree by a glance at the costume. The colors (one or more) of the hood lining represent the conferring college; the color of the velvet border designates the branch of knowledge; the length of the hood and the width of the velvet border indicate the level of the degree. The borders may be two, three, or five inches wide on the corresponding hoods of three, three and a half, and four feet respectively for the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees.
Tassels to the Left (or Right)?
The scholar recognizes 28 separate varieties of faculties designated by border colors, including Nile green for Podiatry-Chiropody and lilac for Dentistry. For those naturalists with a quick eye it should be a simple matter to tell that the gentleman with a three-and-a-half-foot hood with a black lining with a three-and-a-half-inch trim is a Forestry major M.A. from Multonomah School of the Bible.
Further clues exist in the construction of the gowns, which come with three specific cuts of sleeve denoting the three degree levels. Some colleges use the soft beret or biretta, but the prevailing style of cap is the traditional square mortarboard, decorated with a long tassel.
Contrary to popular belief, it matters not whether the tassel is worn to the left or the right of the hat. As a spokesman for the specialists Cotrell and Leonard pointed out, "A gust of wind could change your academic standing in a moment."
Doctors may wear a gold tassel, although they are seldom used at Harvard. Harvard presidents in the past have worn gold tassels.
While observers may not be able to identify each species of the doctoral regalia in today's Commencement, they can reflect that student and professor alike are paying homage to more than 700 years of academic tradition.
--E.B. Boatner '63
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College