For many graduates, the traditional cap and gown is just an eccentric outfit that you wear on graduation day, but the tradition has a long and storied past. When we walk into the ceremony with our graduation caps, we enter a rite of passage that our ancestors have performed for more than 700 years.
In this robust guide, we’ve shared everything we know about graduation caps, so that you gain a solid understanding of academic garb. First, we’ve outlined the history of graduation caps, and how they’ve evolved into today’s iconic styles. Next, we’ve demonstrated how to wear the caps properly, as well as some fun decorative ideas, so that you look your best on graduation day. Finally, we’ve shared a few hairstyle suggestions that look incredible when paired with a grad cap.
By the end of this guide, you’ll be confident to handle the big day and make your family proud. Let’s get started!
Today’s iconic graduation cap style took hundreds of years to develop, with a few unlikely twists and turns along the way. Here’s how it happened.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, the first “medieval” universities began forming, with robes and hoods worn by teachers and students alike. During this era, the church was an extremely influential institution, which led to the adoption of clerical attire. In fact, many professors were connected to the church in some fashion. These heavy outfits were also said to keep students and teachers warm during the winter months.
Oxford and Cambridge were the first traditional universities to adopt graduation garb, and after 1321, all graduates were required to wear gowns during the commencement ceremony. However, graduation caps were not popularized until the 15th century. Initially, they were a take on Catholic birettas, which priests and scholars wore from the 14th century onward. Unlike today’s graduation caps, though, the Catholic biretta had three peaks and a large tuft in the center.
When the modern graduation cap was finally introduced, it was reserved for master’s degree recipients. During the 16th and 17th centuries, it was called a “corner-cap”. By 1950, a Catholic priest named Joseph Durham and an inventor named Edward O’Reilly were working together to file a mortarboard patent in the United States. They realized that fiberglass could increase the mortarboard stiffness, leading to the iconic graduation cap. By the end of the decade, universities all over the country were donning mortarboards in their school colors.
We’ve seen how the graduation cap evolved in form and function from its clerical roots, but what about today’s caps? Here are the design cues that distinguish today’s two most popular cap styles.
This is the quintessential graduation cap. Many believe the name is inspired by the board where bricklayers place their mortar. Bachelor degree recipients wear this cap on graduation day, and most mortarboards are black, along with the gown. Typically, the mortarboard is worn with one corner facing forward, like a diamond. At the center of the mortarboard, there is usually a tassel attached. During the ceremony, the tassel hangs on a specific side of the cap, with most undergraduates wearing it on the right.
Also known as a Tudor bonnet, this special cap is reserved for master’s and doctorate recipients. During the graduation ceremony, it is also worn by professors and academic officials. Typically, the academic tam is made with fluffy velvet material in a circular design. A tassel also hangs from the tam’s center, and it is usually draped over the left side. Originally, the Tudor bonnet was worn during England’s Tudor period.
Now that you’ve chosen the correct cap for your graduating class, it’s time to learn how to don the cap properly. Here’s how to wear a grad cap, while also avoiding hat hair and gusty weather.
First, take your cap and gown out of the packaging, and stand in front of a mirror. Place the cap on your head so that the mortarboard is basically perpendicular with your body (i.e. flat). If the cap is angled too high on your head, it may fall off.
A few days before graduation, stand in front of a mirror again. Practice putting on your cap and gown a few times, and see how they look. Attach the tassel to the cap by looping it under the button. Remember to drape the tassel on your right side if you’re an undergraduate. Then, try on the cap without looking in the mirror. This is useful if you have windy weather during the ceremony, and your cap falls off unexpectedly.
On the big day, there are a few protective measures that you can take to ensure that the graduation cap stays on your head. First, you can add texture to your hair by spraying on some conventional hairspray, so the cap “sticks” a bit more.
If you’re the clumsy type, it might also be worth it to attach the cap to your hair with two crossed bobby pins. Try to attach pins on the back side of the cap, and select pins that blend in with your hair color.
Finally, we recommend parting long hair and tucking it back before putting on the cap. This way, you won’t have “hat hair” when you remove the cap, and you’ll keep hair from accidentally falling in your face during a photo session. For ladies with long hair, it’s generally a better idea to let your hair down, rather than spend hours on a style that gets ruffled under the cap. You can find visual examples for these instructions here.
Think of your graduation cap as a blank canvas, where you can express yourself proudly. It’s the perfect place for an inspirational message, cute illustration, or photo scrapbook. Here are a few fun ideas for customizing your graduation cap with some decorative flair:
With stencil letters and a sponge, it’s easy to add an inspirational message to your graduation cap. Click here to learn more about how to design a miniature house inspired by the beloved Pixar movie Up, complete with rhinestone stickers for the balloons. It’s a whimsical way to share your excitement for post-college life.
With a simple white marker, you can write your favorite quote or shout-out your college dorm. It’s the easiest way to make a statement, and the message will stand out clearly on a black mortarboard.
With a glue stick, and a few photos of your favorite college memories, you can transform your graduation cap into an instant photo album. Friends will enjoy reminiscing about the moments you’ve chosen to share, and family members will love seeing these moments for the first time. It’s a great decorative choice that shares your academic story.
If you’re obsessed with music, you can spruce up your graduation cap by gluing a vinyl record to it. Wear your passion where everyone can see it, and then add a message on the cap to shout out your graduating class.
Finally, here are two incredible ways to use colorful rhinestones to dress up your cap. First, you can coat the entire mortarboard in rhinestone stickers, so that it’s fully bedazzled. In our example, we’ve added a cut-out of Porky the Pig, and a “That’s All Folks” message from Looney Tunes. For a less dramatic look, you can assemble a circle of rhinestones and add number stickers, so that it looks like a graduation countdown on your cap.
So, you’ve learned how to wear and decorate a grad cap, but how do you keep your hair intact while wearing the cap? We know this can be a tricky prospect, especially on a humid day. To look your best, we recommend one of these low-maintenance hairstyles:
For low-maintenance people, this is probably the best approach. Instead of getting an expensive blowout or up-do, try letting your hair down and parting it before you put on the cap. Most of the graduation ceremony will take place outdoors, and on a hot June day, your fancy hairstyle will quickly get frazzled. If you go with an all-natural look instead, you won’t have to stress.
Next, you can preserve the top part of your hair by putting it into a ponytail, while leaving the rest down. This will ensure that your hair stays neat underneath the cap, even when you take it off after the ceremony.
The “cap” section of a graduation cap has two pointed ends, which look like a widow’s peak. When you’re wearing the cap, it’s easy for hair to get stuck underneath the pointy area. To avoid this, you can pin a few loose strands back with bobby pins.
With a little bit of pre-planning, this gorgeous look is easy to achieve. On the night before graduation, put your hair into loose braids before going to bed. Then, undo the braids and spray your hair with a sea salt spray to add texture. Make sure to comb the spray thoroughly with your fingers.
Today, there are a wide variety of online options for ordering graduation caps. In most cases, your school will create an account with a clothing company, so that students can order from the same source. This simplifies the ordering process immensely.
GraduationSource offers a web portal so that students can order their cap and gown online, with no headaches. Once your school sets up the portal, they can decide to pay for graduation attire in bulk, or ask students to pay individually. After you’ve set up a portal with GraduationSource, your students can order their gowns from the comfort of their own homes (and couches). Did we mention setting up a portal is completely free? No? Well, it is!
Meanwhile, our ceremony planning program will save your school hours of work spent preparing for graduation. Our dedicated account representatives have a deep knowledge of graduation traditions, event management, and ceremony attire. They’ll help you through every step of the planning process, at no cost. If you find that the program doesn’t meet your standards, there is no obligation to purchase any products. We want your graduation to be effortless and worry-free!