Why Do Graduates Wear Caps and Gowns?

Reason why caps and gown are worn at graduation

At graduation you get to wear a cap and gown, but it’s a good idea to also wear something underneath it.
― Greg Tamblyn
Graduation is said to mark the end of an era―an era filled with laughter, firm friendships, heartbreaks, sleepless nights, parties, a variety of classes, and immense hard work. The graduation ceremony is one of the most memorable, one of the most special events in a person’s life, and how can it even be imagined without that customary gown and cap that makes one stand out even in a crowd of a hundred people wearing exactly the same thing?
Graduation is said to mark the end of an era―an era filled with laughter, firm friendships, heartbreaks, sleepless nights, parties, a variety of classes, and immense hard work. The graduation ceremony is one of the most memorable, one of the most special events in a person’s life, and how can it even be imagined without that customary gown and cap that makes one stand out even in a crowd of a hundred people wearing exactly the same thing?

For most of us, wearing that graduation cap and gown has been a dream since childhood. Just like we played make-believe weddings and make-believe soldiers, we secretly (or openly) let our imaginations run free and saw ourselves in the hazy, distant future, wearing that beautiful attire that would be a symbol of all the hard work we had undertaken, and all the applause that we deserved for the same. However, not many of us stopped to actually wonder WHY we’re supposed to wear caps and gowns at graduation, it’s just sort of a given, something that is firmly assumed, ’cause in our minds, graduation and the apparel go hand in hand.

So if you’re a graduate, a student about to graduate, or simply a dreamer who’s not in college yet, you’re going to want to read this. The following sections in this Buzzle article will tell you all about the origin of the graduation cap and gown, how the attire is supposed to be worn, and everything else that is important.

The Graduation Cap and Gown: The Elements
Before we go on to understand the origin of the graduation attire, let us first stop to understand thoroughly what it is made up of, i.e., the elements that make the apparel giving it a look of, well, itself.
✦ The Gown
Today, the gown comes in different styles, according to the basic type of degree being awarded to the student. At the Bachelor’s level, the gown has pointed sleeves which are worn closed. For students at the Master’s level, the sleeves oblong and are open at the wrists. These gowns can be worn open or closed, according to what etiquette the school follows.
For students who are being awarded a Doctorate, the gown has bell-shaped sleeves, and again, can be worn both open or closed. Generally, graduation robes are black, though some schools choose to use their own colors.
✦ The Hood
The graduation robes are incomplete without a hood. The hood is mostly black, and is made of the same fabric as the gown itself. The length of this hood is three to four feet, and the width differs depending upon different factors. The hood is generally lined with the school’s colors.
✦ The Cap
cap
The cap, also called a mortarboard, is flat, and typically has a tassel with a button on the top of one of its four sides. The cap too, is generally black, though again the colors may differ according to the school’s traditions. Some schools encourage graduation robes in the official school colors, so in such cases an exception is made.
✦ The Tam
Tams are an alternative to the mortarboards or graduation caps. Unlike the regular graduation caps, tams are poofy at the top and are typically used by graduates receiving Doctorate degrees. They are usually made of velvet, and come with a tassel. Some Master’s programs use tams, too.
The Origin of the Graduation Cap and Gown
✦ We can trace the origin of the graduation cap and gown back to the Middle Ages, when the first universities were founded in Europe. Back then, most of the scholars attending universities were clerical members, or at least aspired to become members of the clergy in the future. Hence, excessive apparel was frowned upon and the gowns became a standardized attire for everyone.

✦ In the year 1321, The University of Columbia made it compulsory for the university students to wear these gowns. As the years passed, universities began totally controlling and prescribing their students’ apparel. Excess apparel was discouraged, and to avoid that, gowns became customary. Oxford and Cambridge had their own standardized academic dresses, which were strictly followed by the students.

✦ Aside from these, there is another, more practical reason that determines the origin and tradition of the gown. When the first universities were founded in Europe, classes were typically held in the local churches. There was no appropriate heating back then, and the gowns were simply to keep the students warm during their classes.

✦ As far as the cap is concerned, it is believed that they originated from the biretta, which was a hat similar to the graduation cap, worn by members of the Roman clergy. In the 14th and 15th centuries, these caps were worn by artists, students, members of the clergy, and teachers. They were called mortarboards because of their resemblance to a tool used by bricklayers to hold mortar.

✦ The tradition of wearing the robes, along with many other customs followed by the old universities in Europe, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, were adopted by American universities which began forming around the 17th century. Wearing the gown at all times was mandatory in most universities, and failure to follow this rule often invited punishment.

✦ However, in the 19th century, the tradition of wearing the gown at all times began to dissolve, and academic institutions began to restrict wearing the robes only during formal ceremonies. The gown was made optional, and most students didn’t bother wearing one at their graduation. Somewhere during the latter part of the century, the tradition was renewed, and the robes were gladly worn by students at graduation. For many, renting these robes was inexpensive as compared to a suit. To add to that, it made all the students wear the same thing, which discouraged social hierarchy. Plus, the old academic traditions fascinated academicians and students alike. So, we can say that post the 14th century, the gown became a standardized graduation dress in order to prevent excessive apparel.
Graduation Cap and Gown Etiquette
Like every tradition, this too has its set of etiquette that must be followed in order to honor it properly.

✦ Men are advised to wear dark trousers, a light-colored shirt, and a tie underneath the graduation gown. Dark shoes and dark socks make up the footwear essentials. Of course, everything is expected to be properly ironed. Men are encouraged to avoid wearing jeans, sneakers, sandals, and T-shirts.

✦ Women are advised to wear a dark dress, or a dark skirt/slacks with a light-colored blouse or shirt underneath the academic dress. Heels are strongly discouraged, for safety and comfort reasons. The length of the gown should be somewhere from the knee to the ankle.

✦ Men and women both are supposed to wear the cap flat on their head. The way to wear the tassel too is common for both―worn on the right, and shifted to the left after receiving the graduation diploma. While the men are required to take off their caps during the school song and the national anthem, the women can keep theirs on.
✦ Another popular part of the graduation ceremony is the throwing of the caps in the air once everyone receives their diploma. In 1912, the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, the authorities gave the graduates their officers hats at the graduation ceremony itself. In response to that, the graduates cheered and threw their midshipmen caps in the air after graduation, and wore the new officers hats. The aforementioned account is vaguely available to us, and we, unfortunately, do not know what the exact chain of events that unfolded. However, this is the general story that is passed on. The tradition caught on and almost every university in the world follows this custom today.
Today, graduation robes are not limited to university students, but are also made for students graduating right from kindergarten. Graduation robes are really an integral part of the whole ceremony, a ceremony that marks not the end as we said earlier, but the beginning of a new, promising phase of life.

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