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Source: Stephen Wolgast, 785-532-0720,
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Photo available. Contact or 785-532-6415
News release prepared by: Katie Mayes, 785-532-6415,

Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009


MANHATTAN -- Graduates of Kansas State University and other schools probably take for granted the caps and gowns they don when receiving their diploma. But behind each piece of fabric and every color are centuries of history.

A K-State expert in academic regalia has recently discovered that the tradition of academic dress in the U.S. goes back a few years farther than previously thought.

K-State's Stephen Wolgast, instructor of journalism and mass communications, researched academic regalia at Columbia University and wrote a paper that has earned him Fellow status with the Burgon Society, a British academic group dedicated to the study of academic dress.

Wolgast presented his paper at a ceremony Oct. 10 in London, England, officially marking his Fellow status. The paper also will be published in the society's peer-reviewed journal, Transactions of the Burgon Society, in 2010.

The paper delved into the history of academic dress at Columbia University. Wolgast found that the effort to create a standard code of dress for university graduates in the U.S. started earlier than traditionally thought.

"In addition to tracing the Columbia's use of cap and gown to the colonial era, I found documents that push back the date of the U.S. desire to standardize academic dress by seven years," he said. "Columbia articulated the goal in 1887 of making clear, by gown style and hood trimmings, where a graduate had studied, what his degree was in and which degree he held.

Before U.S. caps and gowns were standardized in 1895, each college and university had its own standards, as is the case in the United Kingdom, Wolgast said.

"In the late 19th century, America underwent significant changes with industrialization, the growth of railroads and the birth of many universities," he said. "The various cap and gown schemes, which were unrelated, came to be seen as a weakness. When academics couldn't 'read' each others' outfits, some of them were perplexed."

This confusion led to the standardized code we know today, Wolgast said.

Wolgast also discovered that the idea to standardize academic dress in the U.S. was instigated by someone other than Gardner Cotrell Leonard, thought to be the father of U.S. academic dress.

"My paper also shows that the standard information published by many universities -- though not at K-State -- attributes the wrong person as the originator of the idea to standardize," he said. "Gardner Cotrell Leonard usually gets the credit, but the person who proceeded Leonard by six months, in 1893, had a Kansas connection."

That person was John McCook, a Princeton trustee, who contacted university leaders in the northeast to suggest that they adopt a uniform standard for their academic uniforms. McCook later received an honorary law degree from the University of Kansas and donated seed money for the university's first football stadium, according to Wolgast. Though that first stadium no longer exists, a small street near the present-day stadium is named for him.