How iconic designer Cecil Beaton put theatrical flair into the UEA’s graduation gown

Portrait of Cecil Beaton (1985) by Hugo Vickers

Vickers, Hugo: Cecil Beaton (1985)

An Unboxed blog from Isabel Hassan, School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.

In 1965 Cecil Beaton was approached by Vice-Chancellor Frank Thistlethwaite to design the academic dress for the new University of East Anglia’s first graduation. Beaton introduced the use of indigo blue gowns at UEA, whereas other universities up and down the country had mostly opted for the traditional black.

Cecil Beaton was, amongst other things, an Academy Award-winning stage and costume designer for films and the theatre. Prior to designing the UEA graduation gowns, he had worked on Broadway designing costumes.

Beaton thought that the graduation gowns needed to be more theatrical; if you had worked hard to get a degree, you should be able to dress up and flaunt yourself a little on the day you receive that degree.

The cost of Beaton’s indigo blue graduation gown was £2 in 1966, increasing to £4 in 1970. Current university students may think this is affordable, but £4 in 1970 would today be worth £43.26 which is only slightly cheaper than the current £50 cost for UEA students. However, in 1970 “only 20 of the 2,500 students there [at UEA] have thought it worth paying £4 for the dark-blue gowns.”

UEA Coll 4. Original bachelors hat The Dan Dare

Source: Nicholas Groves’ ‘The Academical Dress of UEA’

One aspect of Beaton’s design which did not catch on was his suggestion for novel graduation caps. According to Nicholas Groves’ The Academical Dress of UEA, Beaton wanted to “abandon the traditional square cap (mortar-board) [ . . . ] and to invent a special hat for bachelors, and another for masters.” This hat was more rounded in shape and was called the ‘Dan Dare’ (pictured). The design was a result of Beaton’s desire to make the entire graduation look more theatrical. However, Groves admits that “they proved unable to withstand popular opinion, and have been replaced by the traditional square.”

Although the Dan Dare may not have prevailed, the indigo-blue graduation gowns have. This is interesting considering that UEA students in 1970 did not think the indigo-blue gowns were worth paying for, and now they are almost iconic at UEA.

2017 will see another year of UEA students graduate in these blue gowns from 17th – 21st July.

Notes
1. A major problem of the indigo gowns was that, over the years, the cloth used grew gradually lighter in colour, until by the mid-1990s it was almost air-force blue. It has since returned to a darker shade (Nicholas Groves. The Academical Dress of the University of East Anglia, 2005).
2. The undergraduates were given a short knee-length cape rather than a gown, with slits for the passage of the arms. The colour is recorded as smokey blue (Michael Sanderson. The History of the University of East Anglia, 2002) and as indigo (Groves, ibid).
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4 thoughts on “How iconic designer Cecil Beaton put theatrical flair into the UEA’s graduation gown

    • Hello Adrian – Thank you for this. We are very happy to correct. The archive material that Isabel used for her piece suggests the date as later. We’ll dig further and write a correction with a reference.

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    • Hello Adrian
      We’ve corrected our blog/ facebook/ twitter (with you credited). The sources we referred to, to fact check, conflict with one another but you were exactly right and hopefully the record is even straighter now.
      Thanks again

      Liked by 1 person

  1. There was a Matriculation ceremony in The Village in October 1963, with the Registrar and Vice-Chancellor doffing at intervals, but the undergraduates were in the clothes we arrived in, e.g. jeans and sweaters [the men].

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