Today academic regalia is purely symbolic of graduation, however there was a time when it was worn by university students daily. Imagine wandering from class to class wearing a gown and hood! The novelty would wear off fairly quickly.
Academic dress originates in the 12th century when university institutions were a part of the Roman Catholic Church, the ruling religious order of the day. It was in this period that academic study was only done by church monks and clerics. Their roles required they be educated in religion, writing and statecraft. Study largely occurred in cold, unheated churches where cappa clausa (gowns) and hoods were worn to keep the clerics warm. They became the official dress of academics in 1321 - it is said they were black to reflect the seriousness of undertaking education. When religious schools began to offer education to people outside the church, gowns and hoods subsequently remained as the uniform of an academic. This was done to preserve the seriousness of pursuing education. It wasn’t until 1858 that British law no longer required academic study to be taught by church clerics.
The trencher, also known as a mortarboard, is believed to have developed from the ‘biretta’, a similar cap worn by Roman Catholic clergy. The biretta was worn in the middle ages to identify scholars, artists and learned people.
It may appear ironic that bachelor hoods in New Zealand have fur while the masters do not – you’d think it should be the other way round! It is said this is because in monastic times, senior monks would claim the best seats near the fire, which meant they didn’t require the fur for warmth. The absence of fur symbolized that their status alone was capable of keeping them warm. It wasn’t until the 15th century when hoods were given distinctive colors and lining. Today the colored lining is used as a way of identifying the qualification which the graduate has received. This is in fact a relatively recent development, only becoming common practice in the United States in the late 19th century.
The style of academic dress that we see in New Zealand today is derived directly from that of Oxford and Cambridge universities. This is true of many English speaking and western Universities the world over.