To understand the tradition of the Portuguese academic uniform embraced by university students today - which started nearly 500 years ago - we spoke to a few Portuguese friends.
At school, students meander along cobblestone streets dressed in long, black capes, just skimming the tops of their feet. They giggle in groups and scuttle through the shadows of the evening, disappearing behind a heavy door. Sound like a scene in a Harry Potter book? It's not. Just an observance of Portuguese university students and the medieval-looking uniforms they wear on campus. It's true that J.K. Rowling was inspired by the capes of these students -- among other Portuguese cultural elements -- when writing about Hogwarts and its students, but these Portuguese students are anything but fictional.
So why are 21st century university students wearing uniforms with capes reminiscent of church robes seen in the cathedrals of history books? To help us understand the real story behind these capes and why students still choose to wear the seemingly outdated look, we've spoken to a few friends in Portugal and done some research. Here's what we discovered...
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.
The Portuguese Academic Uniform: Capa e Batina
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,” explains Bruna Rolo, an alumna from the Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD) in Vila Real, Portugal.
The capa is a cape and a batina is the robe worn by church clergy, from which the modern-day Portuguese academic uniforms evolved. Today, the uniform has become a bit of a cultural icon and continues to be part of the academic tradition of Portugal, playing a significant role in praxe, a series of initiation rituals for freshman university students. The concept is very similar to rushing a fraternity or sorority. Creating solidarity among young students and lifelong friendships, the purpose of praxe is to initiate freshman and assimilate them into their new university environment. The whole affair is organized by the Praxe Committee of each university's student-run Associacão Academica (Academic Association).
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.
Praxe at Portuguese Universities
The main week of praxe is held at the beginning of the academic year in September, with some events extending throughout the entire year. Adding a touch of ceremony, each caloiro, or freshman, is assigned a padrinho (godfather) or a madrinha (godmother) to guide them along the way. The upperclassman then put 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 people 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 and it's now common for people to take a pro-praxe or contra-praxe stance (see video below for both views).
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 slight variations to the uniform -- and each has its own rules about how to properly wear it. The uniforms and capes are sold in stores and can be purchased by anyone. Although the uniform is supposed to be worn by students who complete praxe, participation is not mandatory. Some wear the uniform without taking part in praxe and others never wear the uniform. Those students are typically against this tradition and have declared themselves anti-praxe.
How to Wear the Capa and Batina
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 offer the badges as gifts representing a wide array of themes: popular sports teams, academic recognition, Portuguese pride, popular culture, study abroad...the list goes on and on. They're similar to the patches that adorn a Boy Scout's or Girl Scout's uniform, except you don't have to earn your badges.
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.
Wearing the capa e batina is not a university requirement. However, it is a requirement to attend several popular academic events organized by the Associacão Academica. One such event is the jantar do curso, a large-scale dinner event attended in the company of peers from your major. Another one is the famed serenatas monumentais (monumental serenades) where students gather near their city's cathedral to listen to traditional Portuguese fado music -- played and sung by student musicians -- as it echoes through the streets. 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. The most famous of serenades takes place at the Universidade de Coimbra, where this musical tradition began.
In essence, the capes are representative of each student's academic journey -- and yes they'll live on forever in the world of Harry Potter. In Portugal, they represent the start of each student's journey as a freshman anxiously anticipating the week of praxe, to becoming a university graduate that's ready to take on the world -- and all of the time in between studying diligently for classes, building long-lasting friendships, and growing into an independent adult. For Bruna, the "cape is something that I take from my university, and it is a symbol of my academic life and all that it entailed."
College t-shirts and sweatshirts aren't really a thing in Portugal. Occasionally you may find one, but student stores carrying an array of college swag don't exist. But, if you want the look, we found a college-style Porto sweatshirt. (Yes, this is an affiliate link. If you make a purchase, we may receive a small commission.)