STORM LAKE, Iowa | Dr. James Hampton, professor of biology, wears a robe on the first day and the last day of class at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake each year.
Founder's Day is the day the school year begins; Commencement Day is the day it ends.
Hampton, a 19-year veteran at BVU, would like to add a third day in which professors would dress in sartorial -- and academic -- splendor. It would be Sept. 27, the date Old Main, an historic campus center, burned to the ground in 1956.
What's one more day?
According to Hampton, the deans wore robes like this to class every day at the University of Oxford in England. Might be where the commencement robe tradition can trace its roots. Actually, it might be even earlier. Hampton says this was the dress style for men in the middle ages.
Seems that only religious entities and higher education have kept these robes around.
"I think it would be fun to wear this gown one extra day," says Hampton, while pulling his robe, cap and hood from a couple of boxes on his office shelf.
Hampton's gown is a gift from his parents, who paid $600 to buy it as he earned his doctorate in genetics and development from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
"I did consider the colors when my parents bought this," says Hampton. "I was asked what my (academic) discipline was, come to think of it."
Buena Vista University offers a section called "Notes on Academic Regalia" in each commencement program. Gowns, caps and hoods used for academic occasions are colorful, reflecting the area of study.
"Everyone earning a college degree is entitled to wear a black robe on appropriate occasions," it reads. "Trimming and tassel colors vary according to subject field. Faculty members always wear hoods for academic occasions. Hoods are generally black, trimmed with velvet in the color of subject field, and are lined with the colors of the college conferring the degree.
"The bachelor's, master's and the doctor's hoods differ in the length and width of their velvet borders."
Stoles with various depictions or cords of certain colors may designate an academic order such as Kappa Delta Pi, the national honor society for education majors.
Students involved in a course of study overseas may wear a different sash, such a white one with a flag, and students in BVU's Honors Program wear a drape ribbon with a medallion displaying the official seal of the university.
A sidebar with this story shows a list of colors established by the American Council on Education to represent the departments of learning.
While Hampton's robe has royal blue in it, the reverse of his hood is bright red, the school colors for the "Big Red" of Cornell.
Historically, the hood was worn to cover one's head during bad weather back in the 12th and 13th centuries, BVU's notes section explains. Today, it is purely ceremonial, detached from the gown.
"The level of the degree achieved is indicated by the size of the hood," the commencement program shows. "The discipline in which the degree has been earned is indicated by the color of the border on the hood."