Specific colors for specific disciplines
Although the wearing of caps and gowns goes back to Medieval times in Europe, the assignment of colors and regalia design to signify certain academic disciplines varied from university to university.
In 1883 while a student at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Gardner Cotrell Leonard began a drive to establish standardization of academic attire for use by American colleges and universities. Leonard had his system in place and accepted for use in time for the 1887 Commencement ceremony of Williams College. That was the beginning of what would become one of the most recognizable academic traditions in the United States.
Leonard's vision led to the establishment of an Intercollegiate Commission. In 1895 the commission, comprised of representatives of leading educational institutions, met at Columbia University for the purpose of setting standards for academic regalia in the United States. At that time the commission adopted a code for universities to follow specifying the cut, style and materials to be used for caps, gowns and academic hoods. The commission also established a system of colors to be used for the velvet trim on the hoods. White was assigned for degrees in arts and letters representing the white fur trimming found on the Bachelor of Arts hoods of both Oxford University and Cambridge University. Red, a traditional color of the church, was assigned for degrees in theology. The color of herbs, green, was selected for degrees in medicine. Golden yellow was chosen to represent degrees in science, and so forth.
In 1932 the American Council on Education (established in 1918 as the Emergency Council on Education) adopted and expanded the code for academic regalia previously set forth by the Intercollegiate Commission. In addition to the style of academic regalia to be used, the code also provides standards and guidelines for the various academic ceremonies.