Regalia has a rich history

By Johnny Andrews, University Communications

At Spring Commencement, the graduates and others in the crowd will be wearing regalia that has a rich history dating back to medieval times. From the colors of their gowns to the traditional, and not so traditional, accessories, the story of their Carolina journey will be on full display.

Three-photo collage of students in caps and gowns at past Commencements.


A sea of Carolina Blue undergraduate gowns will fill Kenan Stadium for Saturday evening’s ceremony. However, the actual shade of Carolina Blue for the gowns has changed. In 2011, fashion designer Alexander Julian ’69 redesigned and tweaked the color of the graduation gowns to what he felt was a truer Carolina Blue. He also changed the fabric to North Carolina-produced 100% post-consumer recycled polyester, saving tens of millions of plastic bottles from the landfill.

Some graduates also wear colored cords to represent various University associations. Cords are requested through the Office of Chancellor and Special Events, which approves them based on the purpose of the group and how it relates to academic achievement.


Three-photo collage of graduate students in black regalia at past Commencements and doctoral hoodings.

Graduate students

Graduate students typically wear gowns that are black and have longer sleeves than those worn by undergraduates. They also wear a cloth hood around the neck, an accessory that dates to the days when medieval monks served as instructors and used the hood to collect alms in the small nest formed by its folds. While the hood is black, the inside lining is colored to represent the field of study, such as green for medicine, pink for music or purple for law. Master’s degree students wear black mortarboards, like those of undergraduates.

Those receiving doctoral degrees often wear an octagonal cap, called a tam, made of a softer, velvet-like material. The velvet theme continues for doctoral recipients with three striped bands of the material on both sleeves as well as trim on the front of the gown.

Three-photo collage of alumni attending a Spring Commencement at Kenan Stadium for their 50th reunion.

50th reunion

Every year, members of the 50th reunion class march into Kenan Stadium during Spring Commencement to sounds of music from their era. Julian wanted to do something special for his reunion in 2019, so he designed a blue and gold argyle sash for the Class of 1969. Classmates Doug Hamilton and Nancy Farmer pitched in, with Hamilton raising money to produce the sashes, and Farmer and the class reunion committee assembling them in her dining room days before the ceremony. The sashes were used for later 50th reunion classes through 2023, but the tradition may not continue since the alumni association says they have finally depleted their sash stash.

Three-photo collage of student-athletes at past Commencements in Carolina Blue regalia with argyle-themed stoles.


Julian also created the distinctive argyle design used by Tar Heel athletes, first at the request of coach Dean Smith for the 1991-92 men’s basketball uniform. Later Rams Club associate executive director and Tar Heel champion swimmer Sue Walsh ’84 had the idea for student-athletes to wear argyle-themed stoles. She hoped the stoles would enhance stewardship efforts with student-athletes and connect them to scholarship donors. In 2015, Carolina Athletics refreshed their brand guidelines to allow for expanded use of the argyle design, including for student-athlete stoles.


Three-photo collage with graduates at past Commencement ceremonies and University events in Carolina Blue regalia with custom stoles.

Cultural student groups

Many cultural student groups on campus, such as Carolina Latinx Center and the Black Student Movement, honor and celebrate their members at special ceremonies before Commencement. Custom cords and stoles are often part of these celebrations. In its Éxitos ceremony in 2016, the Latinx Center gave graduating seniors a colored cord. The Class of 2017 was the first to receive the decorative stoles still given to seniors today. Josmell Pérez , the center’s director, made sure the stoles were produced by a Latinx business so that the traditional sarape textile would be authentic. The phrase “Soy El Futuro” on one side of the stole represents the center’s belief about their graduates — that they are the future for the University, the state, the nation and the world. The red, green and yellow stoles given out during a graduation ceremony hosted by the Black Student Movement and the Carolina Black Caucus bear the words “Umoja,” the Swahili word for “unity.”

Three-photo collage of faculty members at past Commencement ceremonies and University events.

Faculty and staff

Faculty or staff in regalia wear the colors of the institution that conferred their highest degree, like Harvard crimson or Princeton orange. The colors inside their hoods represent their field of study.

Three-photo collage of students at past Commencement ceremonies and University events in personalized stoles and gowns.


Some students choose to personalize their accessories. For the 2019 Winter Commencement, former Carolina football player Jonathan Sutton (left) brought an extra stole adorned with meaningful images. At the 2019 Spring Commencement, Wanyi Chen (right) made her pre-graduation photos with a personalized light blue gown, complete with customized, cultural stitching on the sleeves.