Gowns for ‘Sweet Girl Graduates’: The Evolution of Academic Dress

By Georgia Oman

While academic dress has been around for a long time, it is only more recently that the wearing of it in Britain has been permissible for more than a small but powerful elite. Until the 1830s, there were only two universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge, and academic dress was a part of their students’ daily lives. Indeed, until 1965, undergraduates at Cambridge had to wear gowns when going to lectures, supervisions, or into town after dusk.[1] As Paul Deslandes notes, academic dress was about more than just wearing a fancy gown – it was a visible symbol of student identity, as well as university privilege, insider status, and masculinity.[2]

As such, the arrival of women to the universities in the second half of the nineteenth century posed a problem. Women’s colleges began to be established in Oxford and Cambridge from 1869, and in 1878 the University of London became the first university in Britain to admit women to degrees. What, pondered the national press of the time, would these lady students wear? A tongue-in-cheek Punch cartoon from 1866 entitled ‘What We Hope to See’ imagined a street scene in an unnamed university town, filled with ‘sweet girl graduates’ in their caps and gowns.[3]

For the women at Oxford and Cambridge, the world of the Punch cartoon was a long way off. The right to wear academic dress was only extended to undergraduates – and as women would not be admitted to degrees at these institutions until 1921 and 1948, respectively, they could not be classed as ‘undergraduates’. While they may have resented this exclusion, Gillian Sutherland argues it was even more strongly felt by women academics, who at university functions were ‘lumped together with the wives… wearing conventional hats and gloves, while the academic male peacocks occupied centre stage with scarlet silk robes and black velvet doctors’ bonnets.’[4]

By the turn of the twentieth century, however, Oxford and Cambridge were by no means the only choice for a university education. New foundations had sprung up across the country, in cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool, where women were not only admitted on the same terms as men, but were also able to take degrees. In general, academic dress at these new institutions was not an everyday affair, but confined to degree ceremonies and other formal occasions – and even then, they were often worn self-consciously. ‘Birmingham is not a classical town’, declared one student at the university of that city in 1902, describing the elaborate lengths both staff and students went to on Degree Day to avoid wearing their academic dress in the city, where they might be subject to ridicule.[5]

Despite this, for most women students academic dress represented a badge of equality of which they were proud. At an 1890 degree ceremony for the Victoria University, one female student of Owens College, Manchester noted ‘at the risk of appearing frivolous’ that ‘academic dress is not unbecoming to our girl graduates’.[6] The idea of academic dress being ‘becoming’ to women was also a serious consideration when they were finally granted degrees at Oxford in 1921. A ‘mannequin parade’ was held before university authorities, during which it became apparent that ‘the mortar board was disliked, especially by men’.[7] The solution was a soft, square cap, the chief recommendations of which were that it was ‘becoming’, and could ‘be adjusted to varieties of coiffure.’[8]

In less than 200 years, academic dress has expanded beyond the rarefied circles of Oxford and Cambridge men, mirroring the expansion of the higher education sector and the widening of access to university education that has come with it. However, its endurance into the modern day, despite these transformations, speaks to the power of our continued association of university education with the legacy of these earlier institutions. In 2018, we perhaps can’t say of academic dress what Annie Rogers, a member of the 1921 Oxford committee, said when presented with the new women’s cap: ‘It never looks ridiculous’.[9]



[1] O.J. Keenan, ‘How Can Academical Dress Survive in the Third Millennium?’, Transactions of the Burgon Society 10 (2010), p. 104.

[2] P. Deslandes, Oxbridge Men: British Masculinity and the Undergraduate Experience, 1850-1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), pp. 33-34.

[3] Punch’s Almanack for 1866 (London: Bradbury, Evans, & Co., 1866), p. 8.

[4] G. Sutherland, ‘“…nasty forward minxes”: Cambridge and the higher education of women’, The Transformation of an elite? Women and higher education since 1900: Papers to be presented at a one-day academic conference at the University of Cambridge, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of women’s full membership in the University, Thursday 24 September 1998, p. 92.

[5] ‘Degree Day’, University of Birmingham Magazine, 2:6 (1902), p. 176. UB/GUILD/F/2/2: University of Birmingham Magazine (1902), University of Birmingham.

[6] ‘Degree Day’, Iris, July 1890, p. 6. GB 133 UMP/2/5: Iris, University of Manchester.

[7] A.M.A.H. Rogers, Degrees by Degrees: The Story of the Admission of Oxford Women Students to Membership of the University (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 114.

[8] Rogers, Degrees by Degrees, p. 15.

[9] Rogers, Degrees by Degrees, p. 15.


Image: Image from page 273 of The Cap and Gown, University of Chicago, 1900 (via Internet Archive Book, no known copyright restrictions)

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