Distinctive academic dress is traced back to the universities of the Middle Ages when students and faculty of universities wore the robes of the clergy. Today, three ranks of degrees (bachelors, masters, and doctorate) are distinguished through variations in the robes. The color and lining of the hood indicate the discipline and the university that awarded the degree.
In the United States, gowns are generally black, although a few universities have adopted other colors for their doctoral gowns. The field of learning in which the degree is awarded is shown by the color of the edging of the hood, and in some cases by the color of the facing and crossbars on the doctoral gown. Some of the frequently seen colors are white (arts and letters), pink (music), dark blue (philosophy), light blue (education), scarlet (divinity), golden yellow (science), olive green (pharmacy) and purple (law). The color of dentistry is lilac.
The colors of the lining of the hood are those of the institution awarding the degree. For example, University of the Pacific colors are burnt orange and black, and these colors line the hood. Doctoral tassels generally are gold, and bachelor's and master's tassels are black. An olive green tassel is often worn on the cap to signify the field of pharmacy. The left side of the mortarboard is the proper side to wear the tassel after graduation.
An individual's degree is revealed by the type of gown and width of the edging on the hood. Bachelor's gowns have full, pointed sleeves with no trimming. The hoods have a two-inch edging. Master's gowns prior to 1960 had full, closed sleeves with the arm emerging through a slit at the elbow. The gown was the despair of wearers because, no matter how hot the day, a coat must be worn under it. In 1960, however, the gown was modified; in place of the elbow slit, an opening was made at the wrist and the gown was made to close. The hoods have a three-inch edging.
Doctoral gowns are of silk, have rounded sleeves, velvet facing down the front, and three velvet crossbars on each sleeve. The hoods have side panels and a five-inch facing.