Graduation Hoods and Robes: What Do the Colors Mean?

Graduates taking self-portrait together outdoors
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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 graduation gowns. Every color and shape symbolizes something.

Color Symbology at Commencement

Most graduation robes (or togas) are black with 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.

There are some standard practices based on degrees received. 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 their specific discipline. Medical doctors will often wear green while psychologists are adorned in gold.

University Traditions 

Some 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 area of 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 learning.

The American Academic Costume Code

Academic dress has an inter-collegiate color code called the American Academic Costume Code. It was established 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 code is also enforced with the stripes on the gown's sleeves and in the graduation cap's tassel.

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.

Common Majors and Their Costume Color

The following list includes the colors that represent the most common majors, however, each school and degree level will have its own tradition:

  • 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?

It's the graduate's choice to pick clothes for under the gown. The academic dress code recommends that anything that can be seen outside of the graduation gown should be dark. This includes shoes, dresses, pants, socks, and leggings. Some students use the top of their graduation caps to create elaborate designs with fabric paint, glitter, and other art supplies to indicate their major, fraternity or sorority affiliation, 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.