Academic Regalia at Oberlin: the Establishment and Dissolution of a Tradition

By: S.E. Plank, Oberlin College[1. I am grateful to my colleagues Robert Haslun, Secretary of Oberlin College, and Roland M. Baumann, College Archivist, for their kind assistance and encouragement. I dedicate this essay to the memory of Geoffrey Blodgett, Danforth Professor of History Emeritus at Oberlin and devoted chronicler of Oberlin history.]

[I]f any season is worthy of symbolical expression and emphasis, it is the Commencement season, the initiation of new members into the international fraternity of educated men. . . .Viewed in this light all the formalism of college life assumes significance; it becomes an awe-full thing to wear a cap and gown.
The Oberlin Review (June 21, 1906)

Styles of clothing carry feelings and trusts, investments, faiths and formalized fears. Styles exert a social force, they enroll us in armies–moral armies, political armies, gendered armies, social armies.
John Harvey, Men in Black (1995)


With the adoption of the Intercollegiate Code in 1895, American universities and colleges embraced a uniformity of design in academic costume that has held sway until the relatively recent proliferation of university-specific gowns.[2. For a summary of the Intercollegiate Code, see Hugh Smith, Academic Dress and Insignia of the World (Cape Town, 1970), II, 1527-75. Smith observes that “by far the most interesting feature . . . of United States academic costume in the period from 1960 to date (1970), has been the deliberate attempt of certain of the best-known and most influential Universities to break away from the uniformity of the Intercollegiate Code. The result of this has been the creation of distinctive academic costume for some or all of the Graduates of at least the following Universities: California, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Fairleigh-Dickinson, Fordham, New York, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Tufts, Union Theological Seminary and Yale.” To Smith’s now outdated list may be added Adelphi, Arizona State, Boston College, Brown, DePaul, Illinois, Johns Hopkins, Loyola, Michigan, MIT, New Mexico, Rochester, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rutgers, Stanford, Temple, Washington, and Wayne State Universitites. A significant number retain the basic design of the Intercollegiate Code, though they alter the color scheme of the gown to create a robe of distinction.] Accordingly, studies of American academic costume may find questions of usage a richer inquiry than questions of design and development, questions of social history more compelling than a study of regalia as autonomous objects unto themselves. A particularly interesting example is the usage and social history of regalia at Oberlin College (Ohio), a usage established around the beginning of the twentieth century as the college experienced a burgeoning interest in “collegiateness,” and a usage dramatically altered in the late twentieth century with the politicizing of the campus and its ceremonial events. Continue reading Academic Regalia at Oberlin: the Establishment and Dissolution of a Tradition