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Abstract

There are a number of scholars tracing the labyrinthian turns that the history of academic dress has taken at specific schools. In a way, this paper is about one event—the meeting of the leaders of some colleges in New York on 16 May 1895. This paper analyses the influences on that meeting, the results of that meeting, the revisions of that meeting’s outcomes and how all of this has been interpreted from then to now. Most reference material giving the history of academic dress in the United States provides a short synopsis that can basically be summed up as follows. Dissatisfied with the state of academic dress in America, a student named Gardner Cotrell Leonard designed the graduation gowns for his class at Williams College and his ideas on academic dress were published in University Magazine in December of 1893. A committee met, the story goes, in 1895 at Columbia College and with Leonard as a consultant adopted a non-binding Intercollegiate Costume Code. The Code was later readopted with revisions by American Council on Education. Major changes were made by committee in 1959 and only one minor change regarding PhD colour was made by committee in 1986. However, the development of academic dress in the United States is a lot more complicated. Until the late 1800s (and technically even up to today), a university’s academic dress was designed and enforced by the school and school dress ranged from heavily regulated to almost (or totally) permissive. By the 1880s, there was a growing movement with university students to incorporate or improve the look of their college’s graduation gowns and it was in this environment that Gardner Cotrell Leonard, the son of a dry-goods store owner, matriculated at Williams College in 1883. [Excerpt from the Introduction].

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