A History of Academic Dress at the University of London
13th March, 2019
The University of London has been responsible for a number of innovations in academic dress design, including the introduction of faculty colours. Here we give you a brief introduction to the history of the designs.
The University of London is a federal University, which means it is made up of a number of colleges with varying degrees of independence. Some of these colleges, Such as UCL and King’s College London have a strong independent identity and even award their own degrees, whereas others award their students a degree validated by the central institution.
The Introduction of Faculty Colours
The academic dress worn by graduates at the University of London is almost as varied as the colleges themselves. The original University of London scheme did not come into use until around 10 years after the university was founded in 1836. The original gowns, hoods and mortarboards were coloured to denote the faculty, with black for arts, blue for laws and violet for medicine. The University of London was actually the first University to use different colours of academic dress to indicate faculty, an approach that has now been copied by many other institutions. The designs also included a lot of velvet, with velvet edging on the caps, gowns and hoods.
Around 20 years after academic dress was introduced at the University of London the scheme was changed. The velvet was dropped in favour of silks and many more faculty colours were introduced. There are now 16 different faculty colours which feature prominently on the hoods worn by bachelors and masters students at graduation. The most common colours you’re likely to see are brown (for arts students) and pale yellow (for science students). The use of blue for laws and violet for medicine was carried over from the old designs, with these colours still in use today.
The bachelors gown designed by the University of London features a gathered sleeve with a chord and button at the elbow, which has now become known as the London style and been adopted by many universities in and around the capital, including the universities of Hertfordshire and Middlesex. It’s even in use at Cardiff University!
Some of the Colleges Develop Their Own Designs
In 2007 several of the constituent colleges of the University of London were given the power to award their own degrees. At this point most of them decided to design their own style of academic dress for graduation ceremonies. UCL based its designs around the university colour scheme of purple and grey and King’s College London had a very original and vibrant scheme of gowns designed by British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood (although the absence of hoods and mortarboards in her design drew some opposition from students!).
Many colleges, however, still make use of the University of London designs, so don’t be surprised if you see the same hoods and gowns worn by graduates from institutions as diverse as Goldsmiths, Royal Holloway, Birkbeck and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine!
If you want to find out more about the academic dress used by any UK university we recommend taking a look at The Burgon Society and Shaw's Academical Dress, edited by Nicholas Groves, which offers a history and description of each design and where we source lots of our information.