The fashion behind convocation

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Universities across the nation are preparing for that big day at the end of the year called convocation: the most ceremonial and important day of your academic career.

Let’s examine where these traditions came from.

Attire plays an important role

Caps, gowns and hoods are a big part of academic ceremony and often carry meaning of achievement and degrees conferred.

Traditionally, robes and gowns were worn on a daily basis dating back to early days of universities of the 14th century. “I believe the first academic gowns were worn in places like Oxford and Cambridge,” says Lucia Dell’Agnese, a fashion professor at Ryerson University. Back then, they played a functional role on cold and damp campuses.

In addition to functionality, this clothing was also a mark of status. “To be an academic was to be of a particular level of society,” says Dell’Agnese. “So you had these fancy gowns that not only set you apart from everyone else visually, but also kept you warm.”

These days gowns have a much more ceremonial purpose. The higher the level of education or status in the academic society, the more elaborate or ornate the gown.

Distinctions in design

Dell’Agnese was responsible for designing the chancellor’s gown for Ryerson University in the 1990’s. Since the chancellor is the highest level of academia in a university, his or her gown must be the most ornate. When she was first assigned the task, she conducted extensive research on the heritage of academic wear.

“Typically the gowns of chancellors are very full, they have gold braid, and gold trim,” she says. “There’s gold wire in the trim, so you can’t cut it with regular scissors.” This makes the gown quite stiff, but it’s worth it according to Dell’Agnese because it adds to the richness of the garment. “The trim is actually a very particular weave. It’s called an oak leaf weave.”

These distinctions apply to graduates as well. The PhD gowns will be far more elaborate than either the masters or the bachelors.

Canadian university academic gowning tradition varies from institution to institution. Ryerson chose the intercollegiate code, popular in the United States with standard gowns, hoods and colours depending on academic discipline. The University of Toronto and York are modelled after Oxford and Cambridge respectively, but it’s up to the university and its leaders to decide what’s best.

A move to the modern

Dell’Agnese says she sees a shift away from ceremonial gowning into much more non-traditional attire and convocation process. “There are so many non-traditional areas in academia, more now than there ever were,” she says. Many of the older, established universities such as the University of Toronto, Queen’s and York are very traditional, but newer institutions like the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD, which received its “university” status quite recently) are choosing different routes.

“Because people are tending not to be as traditional, that’ s causing these kinds of gowns to be questioned,” she says. “I look at it this way: it’s only a couple of hours of your life. It isn’t like you have to wear this gown all the time.”

What does the future of academic dress hold? Will people still look to centuries-old tradition to lead the way? Either way, it’s an inspirational day, because all you graduates have achieved something special.

Photo credit: Ryerson University Convocation from www.ryerson.ca
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About the author

Mira Saraf studied psychology and English at McGill University. When she graduated, she wanted to pursue journalism but somehow ended up working in Montreal's garment industry. From there, she moved to New York to attend FIT. She worked there for a year before moving back to Toronto to work for Winners. Two and a half years in she took over a year off to pursue writing education and a career in freelance writing. She has since returned to the industry and now works for Loblaw/Joe Fresh. She continues to write on a part time basis.