Church garments as prototypes
Ruprecht I’s decree founding the university contained strictures mandating academic clothing. The decree references the Sorbonne and was binding on all four original faculties:
“Every Magister and Bacchalarius shall pursue academic activities clad in cappas and church garments comparable to and in similar proportions as are currently common at the appropriate Parisian faculties.” Because the earliest European universities were ecclesiastical institutions, the students’ clothing resembled that of monks. The cappa, a wrap like a hooded coat, originally had one slit for the arms before a second slit was added and was complimented with a biretta.
Beginning in the 16th century, the original tunic-like garment gradually was replaced by a robe-like coat – the gown. The gown originated in the clerical habitus of the Reformation and was always embroidered with fur for academic purposes.
Faculty-specific colours have been widespread in Germany since the 17th century. Heidelberg used the following colour code: theology: purple; law: red; medicine: green; sciences and mathematics: yellow; philosophy: blue. By the end of the 17th century only professors wore gowns, a tradition that continued throughout the 19th century and up to the 1960s, when the gowns were abolished.
Abolition & Reintroduction of Gowns
In 1968, West German students revolted against the traditionalism of German universities. With their slogan, “Under the gowns is a stale air of a thousand of years,” they tried to create a more modern teaching and learning environment. In the aftermath of these protests, West Germany dispensed with such traditions as gowns and commencement celebrations.
Heidelberg University has been reintroducing gowns gradually since the mid-1990s. The law faculty started wearing gowns again during doctoral celebrations, and the theological and medical faculties followed suit. As of 2001, all members of the university leadership, as well as all of the deans of the various faculties, wear gowns for the Annual Celebration, doctoral commencement ceremonies, receptions with international guests and other academic events.
Dr. Thorsten E. Hauler, Alumnus of Heidelberg University