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Symbols of Achievement

Academic regalia

The academic regalia—caps, gowns, and hoods—worn by graduating students and by faculty on formal occasions are part of a tradition that reaches back nearly 900 years to a time when universities were first being formed.

These accoutrements denoted the wearer’s high status in a time when education was an extraordinary achievement. They had a practical side, too: gowns and hoods kept scholars warm in unheated medieval buildings.

Each university has a distinctive design for its own academic attire—yet these designs also follow a common code.

Decoding academic costumes

The American Council on Education maintains the academic costume code that is followed by all U.S. higher education institutions.


The familiar flat-topped cap—called a mortarboard or Oxford cap—can be worn by graduates regardless of degree. The color is usually the same as the gown; for four-year degrees, gowns and caps are always black. Doctoral caps are covered in velvet.


The basic article of attire is the gown, usually black in color, and similar in design for all degrees. For master’s and doctoral graduates, a hood is included.

Doctoral gowns feature distinctive velvet trimmings on the front and three velvet bars on the sleeves; bachelor’s and master’s gowns are untrimmed. Gowns for bachelor’s degrees have pointed sleeves; the sleeves on master’s gowns arc away at the front; and doctoral gowns have round, bell-shaped sleeves.


By examining the hood, you can identify the degree level, the academic field of study in which the degree was earned, and the school that conferred the degree.

Hood length varies according to degree: doctoral, four feet with panels at the sides; master’s, three and a half feet; and bachelor’s, three feet. However, at WSU and many other universities, bachelor’s degree candidates do not wear hoods.

The color of the hood lining indicates the school that conferred the degree—for WSU this is crimson and gray, of course. The hood is trimmed or edged in a border of velvet either two, three, or five inches in width for the respective degrees.

University Mace

The University Mace leads the processional at University Convocation and at commencement.

The mace is a traditional symbol of legal and chartered authority; it is an evolution of the ceremonial scepters that have been carried by kings and dignitaries through thousands of years of human history.

Created in 1985 by WSU alumnus Tim Doebler, the two-foot-long scepter is cast in silver and bronze and weighs nine pounds.

It features a globe atop a laurel branch wrapped in a silver ribbon and inscribed “Washington State University.” The globe represents the universality of education and the quest for knowledge. Laurel crowns are symbols of achievement which date back to ancient Greece. Atop the globe sits an anvil, which symbolizes students forging and shaping new knowledge and capabilities.