April 27, 2019

Of Western Delta varsity and the academic gown

By Tony Eluemunor

Why did I ever forget that one’s word should be his bond? Prof G.G Darah, yes, that same “activist academic” who has flowered scholarly in translucent colours since the 1980s and 1990s when the “gown” and the “town” embraced as academics took unusual interest in general societal matters, phoned me recently to remind me of my month’s old promise to write about the origin of the academic gown.

Today, I have to pay this debt. That would leave one debt hanging on my neck, according to the good and erudite Prof; to him, I should not be allowed to rest until I would have told the real story of the lies and the media lynching and the high-level machinations and the dirty politics that led to the terrible persecution that some powers that be visited on the former Governor of Delta state, Chief James Onanefe Ibori.

To Prof Darah, some persons are meant to tell certain stories; and I have been chosen by time, events and circumstances to tell Ibori’s in a detailed book.  Sometimes, he phones me just to remind me of it.

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That story will be told another day.  The story for today  though is that of the academic gown.

Why has something as un-alluring and unstylish as the academic gown not only endured but has remained globally trendy? That question has agitated my mind for decades.  The matriculation ceremony of the Western Delta University (WDU) Oghara, Ethiope West LGA, Delta state, provided me with the opportunity to interrogate how and why the academic gown has remained in vogue through the centuries.

Academic  gowns  became part of the universities as early as the 12th century. By then, the university institutions, like much of the planks on which today’s civilization rests, were a part of the Roman Catholic Church—the only Christian religious order of the pre-Martin Luther times.  By this time, academic studies were done strictly by only church monks and clerics. Then, lecture rooms were actually cold, unheated churches and monasteries where” cappa clausa” (gowns) and hoods were worn to keep warm. They became the official dress of academics in 1321 England.

The mortarboard cap developed from the ‘biretta,’ worn by Roman Catholic clergy to keep shaved heads warm. The biretta was worn in the Middle Ages to identify scholars, artists and learned people.

Today’s academic gown’s  global style is derived directly from that of Oxford and Cambridge universities; which means that that the gown being worn in today’s universities, has not changed very much from those worn in medieval England.  Caps and gowns weren’t always just associated with graduation. At Columbia University, New York USA, in the 19th century—and even when it was known as King’s College in the 18th century—the cap and gown was the uniform. One account reports that a student who stole eight sheets of paper and a pen knife was stripped of his gown and barred from wearing his cap and gown for a week.

As I sat there at Western Delta University, Oghara, that Saturday, I wondered how many of the matriculating students knew why they were wearing a robe and that unusual hat.  At my own matriculation in 1978, such thoughts never crossed my mind.

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An American intercollegiate commission devised the modern-day system of academic regalia, which involves robes that are different lengths depending on the degree and colors that signify various disciplines. The gown for the bachelor’s degree has pointed sleeves. The gown for the master’s degree has an oblong sleeve. The rear part of its oblong shape is square cut and the front has an arc cut away.

The doctoral gown is a more elaborate costume faced down the front with black velvet and across the sleeves with three bars of the same; these facings and crossbars may be of velvet of the colour distinctive to the field of study to which the degree pertains. The doctoral gown has bell-shaped sleeves.

Historically, schools of higher learning were referred to as stadium generale or universitas; titles conferred by the Pope, with the latter being the higher honour. However, the early schools were not religious orders as a rule, but rather scholastic guilds made up of students and teachers organized around a cathedral or monastery. Not necessarily priests, the scholars wore clothes that were a sober reflection of lay fashions. In this respect, it was the degree that signified the scholar’s full membership in the learned corporation, not the robe.

In medieval times the term “bachelor” was used to describe the assistant of a small landowner; the master was already skilled, hence the academic use of the term “master” for a higher degree. Both of these titles were in widespread use in the universities during the 13 century.

Medieval dress consisted of a flowing gown or cappa clausa, with a cape or cloak draped over the top. This often had a cowl-like appendage that could be pulled over the head, much like a hooded cape or capitium.

By the second half of the 15 century, the fashion had progressed toward an open gown, from 1490 onward this gown became standard academic dress, with the hooded cape becoming more ornamental than practical.

Most commonly, bachelors and masters scholars wore black gowns made of “prince’s stuff” or “crape,” with the senior man’s garment having wider sleeves to allow for movement while teaching. The dress hood took the form of a drooping cape, lined with silk or fur to denote the scholar’s faculty or social status. For example, in 1432, Oxford forbade the use of miniver for anyone except Masters of the Arts and those of great wealth or noble birth.

As I sat there at Western Delta University, watching the solemn matriculation procession led by the Vice Chancellor, Prof Mrs. Otete Cecelia Okobiah, the sense of solemnity that I never experienced during my matriculation took hold of me. The bright and beautiful young students would never have spared a thought for the journey they were embarking on.

Who would tell them that as a means of historical record, academic dress encapsulates medieval fashion, preserving its character and form for what is an important modern occasion, both to the matriculating students or graduates and to the parents or guardians who have sponsored the education?

Hence, the academic gown is both steeped in tradition and very distinct from everyday clothes-such contrast clearly conveys significant achievement. And to acquire knowledge and to be certified as learned is a remarkable achievement for learning is the engine on which human advancement and refinement rests.

So, why do people still cherish the academic gown today? Education is still not only important but it is still highly respected. That is the only answer!!!