I have a soft spot for commencements. And, as I get on in years, that spot gets even softer.
Part of it, undoubtedly, is because recognizing the hard work and accomplishments of the new graduates is so much more fun than the grading that immediately precedes it. But for me, part of what grabs me is the feeling that what I’m doing — the notion of education and its larger value that I’m trying to impart — connects me to a tradition that is hundreds of years old. One visible sign of that connection is the academic regalia that graduates and faculty alike wear to commencement ceremonies. In the medieval universities, when education was recognized as a calling (and was generally undertaken to serve the church), the students and the teachers wore clerical-looking gowns all the time. While some of us get away with wearing blue jeans and smark-alecky T-shirts in our teaching, the academic gowns we wear at graduations and convocations connect us to this tradition.
But I’ve had issues with the academic regalia I purchased on the occasion of the conferral of my Chemistry Ph.D. **cough** 12 years ago:
- The gown wouldn’t stay closed.
- The hood wouldn’t stay anywhere near where it was supposed to (translationally or rotationally).
My pet theory on this is that the makers of academic regalia for purchase hate professors and want them all to look like fools. (Rented regalia tends to come equipped with zippers and other such conveniences.) But no longer will I be using binder clips to keep my regalia in formation. In preparation for this year’s commencement ceremonies, I have undertaken a regalia retrofit. Details (and photos) after the jump.
First, for those who haven’t been in close proximity to a college campus in a while, here’s what my academic gown looks like. Yes, it’s colorful. Generally, it’s a good thing for the gown not to be completely black, because sitting in full sun at this time of year, you might just burst into flames. That would be way more disruptive than the beach ball those Creative Arts majors will be batting around during the speeches.
For those in the know, the sleeve-lining color tells you something about the field in which the wearer earned his or her doctorate. That golden-yellow sleeve-lining indicates “science”. (Why don’t the special sciences each get their own color? It’s either a show of solidarity or a lack of strong lobbying.)
Here’s what my hood looks like. Despite the fact that these originated as actual functional hoods, designed to give some protection from the elements, the only one I’ve ever seen wear an academic hood as a hood was my father. It made him look a lot like the Emperor from Return of the Jedi — not the look most of us are going for at commencement.
The lining color on the hood is related to one’s schools, and the color of the major stripes along the side of the lining is keyed to one’s discipline (and thus usually matches the sleeve-lining color). This is the hood I got when I earned my Philosophy Ph.D. (technically, a doctor of philosophy in philosophy). Philosophy’s color is blue. My regalia sends mixed signals about my tribe membership.
So, here’s how I fixed the regalia without binder clips.
The most pressing problem was the flying-apart-y-ness of the gown. Among other things, this puts pressure on the hapless academic to wear nice clothes under the regalia. Keep in mind that the getting dressed happens very early on a Saturday morning — in other words, the outer layer is really all you can be counted on to manage well.
A zipper would have been too much hassle to add since it would involve actually ripping existing seams and resewing them with the zipper, and I wanted neither to schlepp a sewing machine to the office nor to schlepp my regalia home. Also, given how hot it can be, a zipper might have restricted air flow in an undesirable way. Thus, I opted for four hooks and eyes.
At the throat of the gown, I also added a silk frog closure. It’s black, like the gown, so it blends in pretty well. Also, it seems to take some of the pressure off of the four hooks and eyes. (I have a feeling someone in an engineering department could have contributed an appropriate stress analysis as i was working all this out.)
You’ll notice a little black button right above one of the eyes. What’s that button for? You’ll see in a moment.
So next we look at the hood modifications. As purchased, the hood had a tendency to slide every which way. It would either slip down my back (with the front part digging into my trachea), or off my shoulders (seeking to escape!), or otherwise pathetically askew. Worse, the hood would not stay properly fanned so as to display its colors (Philosophy represent!).
To achieve the proper fanning out, I added two buttons to the back of the hood and attached them with a length of silk cord. Getting the length just right took a few tries, but it’s not like I had a mannequin handy. Also, it turns out that even the eye-end of a sewing needle is fairly sharp, and thumbs can bleed fairly profusely.
The last modification addressed the proper alignment of the hood with respect to neck and shoulders. If I were a habitual necktie wearer (which I am not), I could simply tuck the narrow fabric band at the front of the hood under the knot of my tie. My alternative solution was to sew a short loop of silk cord to the middle of that narrow fabric band.
The bottom of the loop hooks around that hidden button I sewed to the inside of the placket of the gown. The hood no longer strangles.
I may be a geek, but I think I now have the means to look presentable at commencement.