Gowns have been worn at universities since the colonial times here in America. After the civil war, they began to mostly just be used for ceramonies like graduation. In some places, they are still worn on a daily basis.
The first academic costumes were worn by graduates of Oxford and Cambridge in 15th Century England. They were clerical robes. Since then, the robes have evolved to identify the field of study and level of achievement of the wearer until you have what we have today: different styles of robe for each degree level and different colored tassels for each field of study or type of degree (science, art, etc).
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