The distinctive academic attire of gowns, cape and hoods dates back to the 12th Century, when scholars were usually members of the clergy and wore robes similar to those of other church orders. In those days of unheated classrooms and dormitories, the gowns and hoods served a very practical purpose. Today, they identify the academic achievement of the wearer and reflect a continuous tradition 800 years old.

Both the gown and the hood indicate the degree that the wearer either holds or is about to receive. The gown for the bachelor's degree has a closed front and long, pointed sleeves. Masters wear a closed-sleeve robe with a slit near the upper arm and with the pointed part of the sleeve dangling below the arm. The doctor's down is faced down the front with velvet and has tree velvet cross-cars on each bell-shaped sleeve. The velvet may be black, or its color may indicate the field in which the degree is taken. Graduates of some institutions may wear gowns in the color of the university which granted their degrees; e.g., crimson for Harvard, blue for Yale, bright gold for Johns Hopkins.

Hoods are not worn for the bachelor's degree. The master's hood is shorter than the doctor's and lacks it colored panels. Hoods are lined with the colors of the institution granting the degree and are edged with velvet in the color symbolic of the wearer's academic field: philosophy, dark blue; law, purple; public policy, peacock blue; education, light blue; fine arts, brown; arts, letters and humanities, white; science golden yellow; business, tan; music, pink; nursing, peach; engineering, orange; and optometry, seafoam green.

The mortar board cap came into use after the hood had ceased to be worn on the head. The tassel, worn over the left temple, is usually black, although a colored tassel may be worn to designate one's academic discipline, and the tassel on the doctor's cap may be of gold thread. Some doctor's caps are made of black velvet.

The wearing of the academic attire is one of the "rights and privileges" that accompanies a degree.