Earning a doctoral degree represents the pinnacle of academic achievement. At The University of Texas at Austin, that achievement is honored by unique doctor’s regalia. With its deep russet color, gold accents and unparalleled design, the regalia made its premiere at the 122nd Spring Commencement, ushering in a new tradition at the university.
It took many people and many years to create the final design. Painstaking attention was paid to each detail, resulting in regalia that will represent the university with dignity both on this campus and on campuses across the world.
To design the regalia, the university turned to one of its own. In 2000, award-winning costume designer Susan Tsu, then a professor in the department of theatre and dance, presented the initial design. Tsu has designed for most of the regional theatres in the country, and she recognizes that like many things she designs for the stage, tradition is a driving element in creating regalia.
“The history of our academic regalia goes back to the Middle Ages in Europe, and there are many aspects that remain in today’s regalia from long ago,” she says. “For example, the length of the gowns reflecting honor and status, the velvet “lapels” which are reminiscent of separate scholarly shawls worn over the shoulders and the lengths of the hoods in the back hearken back to the medieval.”
All academic regalia has its roots in the first universities in Europe in the twelfth century, when the ordinary dress of the scholar was the dress of the cleric. The costume bestowed honor, but it also served the functional purpose of keeping medieval scholars warm in unheated buildings. The style of dress was standardized in the United States in 1895 by an Intercollegiate Code.
Within that code, each university must find a way to uniquely represent itself. The UT doctor’s regalia incorporates many singular details, the most obvious of which is its color. The warm tone is a variation of burnt orange that blends well with the more traditional orange and white.
“There is a great deal of pride and identity associated with our university colors, and it was important to me that we choose a color that evokes both the history and the dignity of our university,” Tsu says. “The color of the doctoral regalia is a rich russet that will celebrate our colors from head to toe with taste and elegance.”
It will also allow UT graduates to stand out in a crowd when worn at commencement ceremonies at other universities. For Evelyn Hu-Dehart, a 1976 graduate who is now a professor of history and ethnic studies at Brown University, this is particularly exciting. Hu-Dehart says that teaching at an Ivy League school, she’s found that there is plenty of pomp and circumstance and thus much opportunity to wear regalia.
“Everybody has beautiful gowns that they wear with pride,” Hu-Dehart says of the myriad of colors she sees at academic proceedings. “I’ll be wearing the new regalia many times a year with pride now as well. The burnt orange will really stand out.”
The regalia possesses other distinctive qualities, the most striking of them the gold UT Tower embroidered on the front lapels of the robe. The Tower is the symbolic heart of campus, and its image is the university’s most recognizable both on campus and beyond.
Hoods on academic gowns originated when monks wore cowls as protection against inclement weather. Today’s hood is never worn on the head, but rather draped over the shoulder and down the back. The ornamental cloth is then lined with a color that represents the graduate’s field of study. The UT regalia standardizes the hood in the traditional colors of orange and white and includes the discipline color in a truly unique way: in a pin on the lapel of the gown.
Two cloisonné pins are positioned in the clock face of the embroidered UT Tower. One pin represents the Graduate School with its traditional symbol, the oak tree, at its center. This pin is bordered in the color of the graduate’s discipline. The second pin represents a broader connection to the university with a replica of the medallion of office given to symbolize academic leadership.
The regalia is completed with a six-cornered velvet tam featuring softened corners to provide a less rigid silhouette than a traditional mortarboard. It is worn as a beret at a slightly jaunty angle with the gold tassel sloping toward the wearer’s left ear.
Every detail of the doctor’s regalia was attended to with care, from the images on the pins to the deep pleats under the lapel that allow for a more gracious flow of fabric. It is designed to connect its wearer with the university no matter how far from Austin they travel.
The regalia was developed under leadership of former president Larry R. Faulkner. "With symbols, we extend a university's culture far beyond its campus. Our official regalia now becomes an important new symbol distinguishing our graduates in the world's academies,” said Faulkner. “Those wearing it become emblems of the best of Texas and eminent ambassadors of The University of Texas."
It’s a role that the wearers take very seriously. The University Co-op, exclusive retailer for the regalia, reports that about half of its regalia purchasers are university alumni who now teach on other campuses. Many have been anxiously waiting for years for the regalia, and their enthusiasm for the design is immense.
Dr. Linda Scheirton, a 1990 graduate who is now Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions at Creighton University, is thrilled to finally be able to purchase custom regalia. In fact, she was one of the first people to place an order.
“It’s really special to have your own school’s regalia to wear to the ceremony, and it’s really a pleasure for the students graduating to see everyone come out in different colors representing different schools,” she says. “Not only does it make us proud, but it gives inspiration to those who may want to go on for a higher degree.”
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