Academic Costume was first worn at Commencement in 1786, after the Corporation voted on March 13 that “in future, the Candidates for Bachelors degrees, being Alumni of the College should be clad at Commencement in black flowing robes & caps similar to those used at other Universities. Resolved, that an exclusive right of furnishing such robes ... be granted and confirmed to an Undertaker for the space of fifteen years.” In 1912 the Corporation passed laws regulating academic costume. At this time it was voted that the gown of the Fellows and Trustees during their term should be the doctor’s gown with any hood to which the wearer was entitled and the hat should be of the form generally called “the trencher” and be of seal brown velvet. Through the years the designation “beef-eater” has been incorrectly used to describe the hats of the Corporation. The 1912 regulations also prescribed black hoods, three feet long for bachelor’s degree, three and one-half feet for the master’s, and four feet for the doctor’s, lined with the official color, brown. There is no evidence that the bachelor’s hood was actually put into use.
Traditional black gowns were worn until 1968, when Brown, following the lead of Harvard, Columbia and others, adopted the school colors for the gowns worn by recipients of advanced degrees. The Ph.D. gown is now seal brown with black velvet panels and crossbars, trimmed with cardinal red piping, with a red outline of the shield of the University on both sides at lapel level. With the Ph.D. gown is worn a square black velvet cap with gold tassel. Masters’ gowns, which had been black with short sleeves, were changed to seal brown with full-length sleeves. All of the gowns have the outlines of the shield on both sides at lapel level and a cord of cardinal red vertically from the back of the neckline for seven inches. It was decreed by the Corporation at this time that those wearing the new doctor’s gown would also wear a square velvet mortarboard, while those wearing the standard doctor’s gown would continue to wear the standard doctor’s cap. Corporation gowns are the same as the new Brown doctor’s without the crossbars on the sleeves. Corporation members who have earned doctorates may have the crossbars added.
The president’s gown is unique. Given by an anonymous donor in 1964, it was designed by Anne S. K. Brown, an authority on military dress, who traveled with her husband, John Nicholas Brown, to Ireland to arrange with Walter Conan, master maker of gowns for the Irish universities, for the gown to be made by Irish craftsmen. The fabric is Irish poplin, dyed in the official brown of the University. The red trimmings are the exact color of St. George’s Cross, which appears in the University coat of arms. The gold bands on the sleeves are edged in red. The yoke is red edged with gold lace. The president, a member of the Board of Fellows, wears the hat prescribed for the Corporation. President Keeney first wore the gown at the Bicentennial Convocation in the Colony House in Newport in the fall of 1964.