Some say that Portuguese university students look like they stepped out of the pages of a Harry Potter book. But the black cape and academic uniform they wear is a tradition that started nearly 500 years ago.
At school, students meander along cobblestone streets dressed in long, black cloaks skimming the tops of their feet. They giggle in groups and scuttle down narrow roads amongst the evening shadows, before disappearing behind a heavy door. Sound like a scene from a Harry Potter novel? It's not.
In Portugal, it's common to see university students wearing an academic uniform that's reminiscent of medieval robes. It's said that J.K. Rowling had their black cloaks in mind — and other Portuguese cultural references — when writing about Hogwarts and its students, but today's Portuguese students are anything but fictional.
The academic uniforms that students wear today are referred to as the capa e batina and originated from a tradition that started nearly 500 years ago.
So why are 21st century university students wearing such seemingly antiquated uniforms and capes? After speaking with a few friends in Portugal and conducting some of our own research, here's what we discovered...
Capa e Batina: The Portuguese Academic Uniform
The academic uniforms that students wear today are referred to as the capa e batina and originated from a tradition that started nearly 500 years ago at Portugal’s oldest university, the Universidade de Coimbra. “The capa e batina are a crucial part of the Portuguese academic uniform,” Bruna Rolo explained, an alumna from the Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD) in Vila Real, Portugal.
At the end of a long week full of youthful antics, the freshman have a “baptism”after which they finally earn the privilege to wear the capa e batina.
The capa is a cape and a batina is the robe worn by church clergy, from which the modern-day Portuguese academic uniforms evolved. Over time, the uniform has become an academic symbol of sorts that university students proudly wear. And it maintains its significance in the Portuguese academic tradition by playing a major role in praxe, a series of initiation rituals for freshmen. The concept is similar to rushing a fraternity or sorority. The purpose of praxe is to assimilate freshman into their new university environment, create solidarity, and build lifelong friendships. The entire affair is organized by the Praxe Committee of each university's student-run Associacão Acadêmica (Academic Association).
College sweatshirts and swag aren't really a thing in Portugal. As you can see, they prefer a different kind of academic attire. But, if you want the look, try this college-style Porto sweatshirt.
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Praxe, aka Initiation, at Portuguese Universities
Praxe (pronounced "prash") takes place over the course of one week at the beginning of the academic year in September, with some events extending throughout the entire year. To add to the ceremony of it all, each caloiro, or freshman, is assigned a padrinho (godfather) or a madrinha (godmother) to guide them along the way. The upperclassman then engage the freshmen through a series of activities, much like hazing at American colleges. Some activities are more innocent than others, but a running theme is making the freshman do stunts and chants that are silly and ridiculous — and yes, embarrassing and absurd at times.
Most Portuguese graduates recall praxe and their freshman year as “the time of their lives.” However, praxe has received more and more criticism over the years as some hazing events have become violent and dangerous. Several news programs have debated the ethics of this tradition. It's even common now for people to take a pro-praxe or contra-praxe stance as expressed in the video below.
At the end of a long week full of youthful antics, the freshman have a “baptism”after which they finally earn the privilege to wear the capa e batina. Each university has unique variations of the uniform and each has its own rules about how to properly wear it. The uniforms are sold in stores and can be purchased by anyone. While the uniform is supposed to be worn by students only after completing praxe, participation is also not required. Some students wear the uniform without having done praxe and others never wear the uniform at all. Such students are typically against this tradition and have declared themselves anti-praxe.
A Personalized Memento of the University Experience
For students who do wear the traditional uniform, they have the opportunity to personalize their capes with badges they collect throughout their studies. Friends and family often give badges as gifts to students during their academic years to represent their interests and accomplishments: popular sports teams, academic recognition, Portuguese pride, popular culture, study abroad, and many more. They're similar to the patches that adorn a Boy Scout's or Girl Scout's uniform, except that you don't have to earn these badges.
Social Evenings and Midnight Serenades
Wearing the capa e batina is not a university requirement and some students opt to never wear one. However, the uniform is a requirement to attend several popular academic events organized by the Associacão Acadêmica. One such event is the jantar do curso, a large-scale dinner event attended in the company of peers from your major.
The serenade is a meaningful moment for freshmen when their "godfather/godmother" drapes the famous black cape over them, celebrating the first time they can wear the academic uniform.
Another much anticipated event is the serenatas monumentais (monumental serenades) where students gather near their city's cathedral to listen to traditional Portuguese fado music echo through the streets — played and sung by student musicians. The most famous of these serenades takes place at the Universidade de Coimbra, where this musical tradition began. During the serenade comes a meaningful moment for freshmen. Their padrinho/madrinha will drape the iconic black cape over them celebrating the first time they can officially wear the academic uniform.
In essence, the capes reflect each Portuguese student's academic journey — from that first week as freshmen anxiously anticipating praxe to becoming graduates ready to take on the world, and all of the time in between spent studying diligently for classes, building lasting friendships, and growing into an independent adult. For Bruna Rolo, the "cape is a symbol of my academic life."