Law’s Purple Majesty

doctor_of_law_gown.jpgAlong with colleagues and students at Temple’s Beasley School of Law, I’ll be marching in tomorrow’s graduation ceremony. As a lawyer, I’ll be trimmed in purple, which otherwise symbolizes: royalty, over-writing, wisdom, indecision, insanity, equality and the Minnesota Vikings. Sounds about right. But what was the genesis of associating purple with law?

Interestingly, the dominant theory seems to be that academic dress recalls an era where laws flowed from the King: purple symbolizes lawyer’s roots as agents of the sovereign. And it is true that of the professions, the one with the closest tie with the institutions of state sanctioned force remains law. But you’ve got to wonder why the folks who codified academic dress in the U.S. decided to tie themselves to an idea of legal rules that evoked royalty, instead of, say, the brittle yellow of the constitution. Perhaps it is just a case of American professors admiring the pretty dresses worn in the old world?

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6 Responses

  1. Belle Lettre says:

    My sister is a dentist, and when she graduated her trim was lilac–which is just a paler shade of purple. So what’s up with that? Are they kind of lowlier agents of the sovereign? Maybe now I have bragging rights. Either way, it beats B-school “drab.”

  2. Seth R. says:

    A couple decades ago, Professor Hugh Nibley caused quite a stir when he gave the opening prayer at Brigham Young University’s graduation commencement.

    “Our Father in Heaven. We are gathered together here, clothed in the robes of a false priesthood…”

    They didn’t ask him to pray the next year.

  3. Isaac Bowman says:

    The color purple, when used in clothing, has been associated with wealth since before the time of the Romans.

    The dye that was used for the silk/cloth came from small sea creatures that lived in deep waters. Since there were no masks or breathing systems available it was a difficult and often dangerous trade. This meant the dye was very expensive and hard to come by.

    I hadn’t thought about the legal reference before though. Thanks, Isaac

  4. Nate Oman says:

    The real sartorial issue for JD’s is what kind of hat they get. Is a “juris doctorate” a “real” doctorate meaning that you get one of the soft, four cornered hats, or is a fake doctorate equivalent to a BA or an MA and therefore only entitled to a mortar board. Different schools have different policies. It is tricky for a number of reasons:

    1. A JD is a “professional” degree so it seems less, well, academic than a Ph.D. (But cf. MD’s, who not only get the soft hat but get called “Doctor”.)

    2. A JD does seem to stand between an MA and a Ph.D. in terms of course work. Most MA’s are one or two years of course work. Most Ph.D’s are four years of course work. A JD is 3 years, without any thesis-like writing requirement.

    3. It is unclear if a JD is a terminal degree in law. After all, you can get a S.J.D. or an LLM. But both of these degrees actually involve less work than a JD. Very confusing.

  5. Belle Lettre says:

    I am having the hardest time explaining to people what my LLM progam signifies. They (especially the dentist siblings who are called “Dr.”) ask “But don’t you have a doctorate already? Why are you getting a masters?” So I try to get around that by telling them my program is “post-doctoral,” something my dentist siblings and PhD friends can understand.

    The problem is, law schools don’t refer to LLM and JSD degrees as “post-doctorate.” Most often, they are called “advanced law degrees,” which only makes sense to someone with a law degree. I’ve also seen “graduate programs,” which again makes people go “huh?” since they thought I already went to graduate school. So I’ve basically given up on trying to explain to people that yes, I technically have someting called a “juris doctorate,” and no, it was not a terminal degree and yes, I am getting a masters after I got my doctorate.

    The hardest thing was trying to tell this to my parents, who don’t speak English and don’t really understand the legal education system. So trying to analogize what I’m trying to do to the French-influenced Vietnamse educational system was a fun challenge.

    As Nate said, very confusing.

  6. wesley says:

    The whole idea that a professional doctorate (e.g. J.D; M.D.) is somehow inferior to a research doctorate (e.g. PhD.) is laughable. A thesis is not required for a J.D.—just a TON of other writing that amounts to 3 theses. As for a J.D. requiring less coursework than a PhD.: more hogwash. It depends upon the schools involved. My law school required significantly more coursework than many universities require for a PhD. Also, PhD programs often allow some Masters coursework to be counted toward the PhD. As for a PhD being superior because it is a “research” doctorate: while it is true that stats classes & research methodology involve serious study, law school involves a “tad” of its own research which has been made revelation to virtually anyone who has been to law school. Anyone who thinks that law school generally involves less work than a PhD program (especially at an IHE such as Pepperdine) is simply deluded. Also, good law schools generally force many 1st year students out by making their programs extremely difficult. PhD programs rarely involve this “survival of the fittest” aspect. When I attended Pepperdine, we were given 1 summative exam at the end of each semester—that was it; that was our grade unless a prof. wanted to ream us a bit more for missing 1 or more of his classes.