Graduation Hoods and Robes: What Do the Colors Mean?

Deciphering the Colorful Symbology of Commencement

Graduates taking self-portrait together outdoors
Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty Images

Graduation ceremonies at colleges and universities are certainly colorful affairs. Commencement is filled with a rainbow of caps, sleeves, and hoods that pop out from the sea of black gowns. Every color symbolizes something and it is as interesting to explore as it is to watch on graduation day.

Color Symbology at Commencement

Most graduation robes (or togas) are black and as you look out over the crowd of graduates, you will notice caps, sleeves, and hoods of almost every color imaginable.

These different colors are used as symbols for the student's major or level of academic achievement. 

For instance, an economics major may have a copper hood at one university while a music major has pink on their sleeves and tassel at another school. Schools may have their own awards that are separate from the traditional guidelines as well.

Dark blue is often used to signify someone who holds a Doctorate of Philosophy, or Ph.D. Someone with a doctorate that is not a Ph.D wears the color that goes with his specific discipline. Medical doctors will often wear green while psychologists are adorned in gold.

Universities have their own traditions when it comes to graduation garb. Harvard, for example, puts all of its doctoral candidates in crimson gowns and its undergraduates pair crimson hoods with their black gowns. Many other schools wear robes to indicate from which school or study the graduate has earned a degree.

Since some schools are large enough to require separate graduation ceremonies for each type of degree earned, the school wide graduation ceremony can be very colorful, with a rainbow of robes representing all areas of study.

Students also use the top of their graduation caps to create elaborate designs with fabric paint, glitter and other art supplies to indicate their major, their fraternity or sorority affiliation, their school activities or even just a simple "I did it!" These caps become keepsakes, and add a festive touch to the celebratory mood of graduation.

The American Academic Costume Code

Academic dress has an inter-collegiate color code called the American Academic Costume Code. It was set in 1893 and has been adjusted over the years to reflect the addition of new majors. Many schools choose to use this system to differentiate their graduates from one another.

The color code can often be seen in the graduate's regalia hood, which is worn around the neck and drapes over the shoulders to cover the back. The color can also be reflected in stripes on the gown's sleeves and in the graduation cap's tassel.

The American Academic Costume Code also gives guidelines for the style gowns and other commencement accessories, including the materials they are made of.

The graduation robe worn to indicate a bachelor's degree has pointed sleeves. It is tradition to wear the gown closed. For a master's degree, the graduation robe has an oblong sleeve. The graduation robe worn by recipients of a doctor's degree has bell-shaped sleeves. It, along with the master’s degree robe, can be worn open or closed.

These are the colors that represent the most common majors:

  • Architecture and city planning: violet-blue
  • Business and accounting: a beige color commonly referred to as “drab”
  • Communication and journalism: crimson
  • Criminal justice: midnight blue
  • Dentistry: lilac
  • Dramatic arts and fine arts: brown
  • Economics: copper
  • Education: pale blue
  • English, foreign languages, humanities: white
  • Engineering: orange
  • Environmental studies, forestry: russet
  • Environmental science: golden yellow
  • Government, foreign affairs: peacock blue
  • History: white
  • Law: purple
  • Mathematics: golden yellow
  • Medicine: green
  • Music: pink
  • Nursing: apricot
  • Pharmaceutical sciences: olive green
  • Philosophy: dark blue
  • Physical education, physical therapy: sage green
  • Political science: dark blue
  • Psychology: gold
  • Public health: salmon
  • Public policy: peacock blue
  • Sciences: golden yellow
  • Sociology: white
  • Theology: scarlet

What to Wear Under the Graduation Gown?

There is always discussion about what graduates should and should not wear under their graduation gowns.

The academic dress code also has a recommendation for this.

Essentially, anything that can be seen outside of your graduation gown should be dark. This includes shoes, dresses, pants, socks, and leggings. In traditional academic fashion, this is not the time to be flashy (unless they can't see it!).