The history of academic clothing is a long and complex one that has hundreds of variations. If you want to learn more, there are several books on the subject.
European universities started out as a branch of monastic schools. Students were often in minor orders and brought their clerical fashions with them. The first university uniform is the cappa clausa, a type of closed cossack. It was required dress for a wide range of English clergy by order of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1222. The long garment wasn't very practical but it remained a mainstay of schools while priests moved on to shorter open garments.
In the 1300s the houppelande, a secular robe with a buttoned top and large sleeves, became popular with people from all walks of life. It was eventually adopted by both priests and scholars. Again the priests moved on to different outfits, but scholars kept the robe. Today's gowns mix features of the cappa clausa and the houppelande.
It's believed that the mortarboard cap comes from the biretta, a boxy hat still used by archbishops. Originally when someone got a Master's degree he would get this cap along with a ring. The ring would eventually become part of high school graduation, but the biretta was adopted by professors who often wore it on top of a monk's skull cap. Eventually the two hats merged. Throughout the 1700s the square section on this part-square, part-round cap expanded, eventually creating the mortarboard we are familiar with today. The tassel was added to show the wearer was a high doctor. Eventually tassels spread to other caps with the highest honored people at the school getting gold ones. Up until the late 1800s Oxford's gold tassels were reserved for noblemen.
While most English schools used only black gowns, European schools adopted colored gowns to identify the wearer's area of study. For example, French humanities graduates wear yellow and medical grads wear pink. Up until the last century the U.S. had a similar system that varied from school to school.
A meeting of American colleges at Columbia University in 1895 codified the first national standard of academic dress. This standard was revised in 1932 and 1959, although adherence to these standards varies from school to school. For example, the standard specifies robe colors for degrees while most colleges use their own school colors. Both the cap and gown were originally day-to-day dress for academics, but as time went they were replaced by civilian dress appearing only symbolically in graduation ceremonies.
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