A Beginners Guide to Academic Gowns

A Beginner's Guide to Academic Gowns

Churchill Gowns Director of Operations, Ruth Nicholls, talks us through the most common styles of bachelors and masters gowns used in the UK today.

A question we get asked all the time is ‘are all graduation gowns the same?’ and it’s true - to the untrained eye they can look almost identical. There are, however, a few subtle differences that distinguish the different types of gowns and usually reflect the level of degree being awarded and the location of the university.

It's all in the sleeve!

The first place to look to find out what type of gown you’re looking at is the sleeve. If the sleeve is long and closed with a small hole for your arm then you are probably looking at a masters gown. If the sleeve is wide and open and your arm comes out the bottom of the sleeve then it is probably a bachelors gown. Here’s a comparison of the two...

Left: bachelors gown with open sleeve. Right: Masters gown with long, closed sleeve.

Different styles of bachelors gowns

There are five commonly used styles of bachelors gowns, which are worn by graduating bachelors students at the majority of UK universities. The most common of these is a plain ‘B1’ style gown, which is the most frequently used gown and is a part of academic dress for universities all over the country. It has a plain, open sleeve that finishes just below the inside elbow of the wearer and is usually plain black although some universities, such as Bath Spa University, wear it in dark blue.

The alternative styles of bachelors gown tend to be associated with a particular location, or at least they were when they first came into use. The Welsh gown has three buttons on the sleeve in a ‘W’ shape, which is supposed to represent the three heraldic feathers of the Prince of Wales. This gown is used by the majority of universities in Wales, including Bangor University and Swansea University.

The sleeve of the welsh gown resembles the feathered emblem used by the Prince of Wales

There is also an Oxford gown, which is similar to the B1 but has longer sleeves and is used by both Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University, and a Cambridge gown, which is similar to the B1 but features a slit in the top of the sleeve. Finally there’s the London style bachelors gown which features a button and twisted chord at the opening of each sleeve. This is used by UCL and the University of Hertfordshire, among others.

Left to right: plain 'B1' gown, a London style gown with button and chord on the sleeve, a gown with a long Oxford style sleeve

Of course academic gowns have been worn for many centuries and all of these styles have gradually broken free of their original geographies, so don’t be surprised if you now see a London gown worn in Cardiff, an Oxford gown worn in Plymouth, or a Welsh gown worn in Sheffield!

Different styles of masters gowns

You’ve got to be pretty eagle eyed to spot the differences in masters gowns, as it all comes down to the shape at the base of the sleeve. The the casual observer they all look very similar, but for true gown puritans the curve on the sleeve is of utmost importance. Again, geography has played an important role in the design of masters gown sleeves with Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, Bath, Manchester and Leicester (to name but a few…) all having their own pattern!

This may sound a little complicated but we’d be very impressed if you could pick out the precise style from a line of graduates, as the differences between them are very subtle.

Hopefully that serves as a sufficient introduction to the most commonly used styles of bachelors and masters gowns. Of course there are a few unusual designs out there, so keep your eyes on our blog for further articles about some of the more unusual styles you may come across. Oh and we felt the PhD gowns really deserve a blog of their own, given the fantastic variation of colour and style in PhD regalia!