The traditional academic attire that we see as a somber yet colorful part of commencement exercises had its beginnings in the Middle Ages when the university first developed as an institution of higher learning.
The most important centers of intellectual life in the 10th Century were the monasteries - centers least affected by the disorders of the time. The relative stability of the monastic life left monks free to develop systematic graded education for the first time in the history of Western society. The first students were monks and priests, and the costumes they wore were more for protection from the weather than as distinctive regalia for the scholarly way of life. Caps were a necessity in the cold, drafty buildings and capes and hoods were also worn for warmth. In later centuries, as the British universities passed from the control of the monasteries, the costumes took on brighter colors, and the hood was singled out as the item to be made distinctive for various degrees by color, trimming, and lining.
The use of caps, gowns, and hoods has been continuous in the United States since Colonial times - the tradition having been transplanted from Oxford and Cambridge to the New World. However, the dress code was modified and the vivid colors so prevalent in Great Britain were eliminated. Prior to 1895, faculty academic costumes varied widely from university to university. Since few people knew the distinguishing marks or colors for the various degrees, the dress code was standardized for all American universities. At the same time, students began a movement which would spread throughout the country to make academic regalia an integral part of the commencement ceremony. A desire to make the festivities more impressive and interesting as well as to add grace and dignity to the ceremony led the students in this successful endeavor.
The academic color for law is purple. Southwestern Law School regalia consists of a black robe, a mortarboard with purple tassel, and a purple and white satin hood.
Students who have been on the Dean's List (top 10% of each class automatically qualify for the Dean's List at the end of each academic year) or participated in academic co-curricular honors or extracurricular service programs are wearing stoles in distinguishing colors as follows:
- Dean's List - scarlet with white lettering
- Moot Court - white with purple lettering
- Negotiation - green with white lettering
- Trial Advocacy - purple with white lettering
- Law Review - gold with purple lettering
- Journal of International Law - purple with gold lettering
- Journal of Media and Entertainment Law - silver with purple lettering
- Student Bar Association - navy blue with gold lettering
- Law Commentator - light blue with white lettering
Dean's Fellows wear blue cording and Southwestern Torch Bearers wear silver cording, honoring their connection with Southwestern alumni, faculty or staff members.