Confessions of a Gown Geek

16th November, 2018

Director of Operations at Churchill Gowns, Ruth, offers a glimpse of the wonderfully eccentric world of academic dress research

If attending your graduation ceremony has inspired you to find out more about the weird and wonderful traditions of academic dress, then we’re happy to tell you that there is a whole world of gown geekery out there, of which team Churchill Gowns are proud to be a part!

Take a peek into the world of academic dress and you’ll quickly learn that the main authority on its history and documentation is a society called The Burgon Society who, among other things, hold regular events and publish papers on the topic. The members of the Society range from university academics, to hobbyists, to robe makers (like us), all united by an enthusiasm for the many fabrics and designs that make up a university’s ceremonial dress.

The Burgon Society even have a large archive, held in the UK, of gowns, hoods and mortarboards from past and present. Whilst the outfits worn for graduation may look antiquated, the archive reveals that schemes of academic dress are actually quite fluid and frequently change fabric or colour shade, depending on the availability of materials. In previous centuries, students would even take their own rolls of fabric to the local robe maker in their University town, to have a gown made up - which led to a lot of variation in colour and material. It’s only relatively recently that gowns and hoods have been manufactured on mass and in a more uniform style. And, as long as new Universities continue to spring up, there will be cause to continue designing new schemes of dress for graduation ceremonies - some less orthodox than others!

Left: Grayson Perry's new chancellor's gown for University of the Arts London, designed by student Keith Tovey. Right: Graduates of King's College London wearing gowns designed by Dame Vivienne Westwood

The Burgon Society also publish ‘Shaw’s Academical Dress’ - which is pretty much the bible of university academic dress in the UK. If you’re curious to find out why the colour of the DeMontfort University hood was inspired by a brick wall, or how the University of the West of Scotland came to line their hoods with a unique Paisley brocaded silk, then this is the holiday reading for you!

Graduation is the perfect time to embrace this tradition in all its eccentricity, so why not spend a little time before your big day finding out about the history of the robes you’ll be wearing? The Burgon Society have plenty of resources on their website, and a very entertaining twitter feed @burgonsoc

You may just find out that gown geekery is for you!