Many people may not think too deeply about academic apparel required for their graduation ceremony. For some it’s a one-time thing, for ambitious students and faculty it’s an occasional outfit worn to distinguish a rite of passage. Similar to getting married, this rite of passage is an important cultural traditional that has three ritualistic steps. First, walking into the ceremony is a separation of society. The second step is inculcation to transformation and lastly returning to society with a new status. The history of the Cap and Gown is a long one, going back centuries.
The question remains, why do we wear a cap and gown while completing this milestones? Academic regalia came to fruition when universities started forming in the 12th and 13th centuries. Students and teachers typically wore clerical clothing because the church was highly influential at this time. Many professors were priests, monks or clerics and their students were typically studying to do something similar. Historians believe scholars wore long robes and hoods to keep warm in these unheated buildings.
Unknown Medieval University class in the 1300s.Image Source: Wikipedia University of Paris in the 14th century (left) and 16th century
The significance of the hood dates back to Celtic Groups and Druid priests who wore capes with hoods that symbolized higher intelligence and superiority. The first picture is said to be from the 18th century and the picture on the right are modern Druids.
Image Source: Wikipedia: This is an image of John Wycliffe, professor of theological studies in the University of Oxford and his followers in the mid-1300s.
While academic dress was originally inspired by medieval universities, the first recognized schools that officiated graduation attire was Oxford and Cambridge. By 1321, “excessive apparel” was forbidden in universities which suggested everyone should wear long gowns during ceremonies to create unity.
Image Source: Discovery
Image Source: Wikipedia: Andrea Mantegna in 1474 (left) Linus Pauling in1922 (right)
The graduation hat has changed throughout the centuries and with many variations. The most prevalent style is the mortarboard cap which pairs with standard graduation gowns. These caps are believed to have been developed in the 15th century evolving from hats known as birettas used by Catholic clerics, scholars and professors. The origin of the biretta dates back as far as 1311 in churches.
Image Source: Wikipedia: The oldest quadrangle of Oxford University, constructed in the years from 1288-1378.
You may wonder, what is with that cardboard square shape? The answer is debatable. Most historians believe it simply signifies the shape of a book to give a scholarly appearance or is meant to represent the shape of the quad within the Oxford campus (as seen in above image).
Image Source: Pacraig: A mortar board used to plaster walls
The mortarboard got its name from the flat board used by bricklayers to hold mortar. Therefore, some people believe the reason the cap is square because it represents the mortar board of a master workman. Despite the uncertainty of origin, the style has remained accepted and popular at most educational institutions.
This original European academic style remained throughout the centuries and was adopted in the colonial times in America. After the Civil War, academic regalia was reserved strictly for graduation which is why the cap and gown symbolizes recognition and achievement. Hoods are no longer used over the head to keep warm but remain as a decorative piece that represents one’s field of study.
Image Source: TFC History Toccoa Falls College in North Carolina-Graduating class of 1955
Until the 1950’s, graduation caps and gowns were typically gray in the United States. Sometime in this decade, students became more interested in using different colors to represent their school the way European countries have been doing since the 1800s. Since color photos were expensive and uncommon until the 1960’s, most graduation shots were still in black and white. In the above photo, you can see this school had begun to use gowns in different shades. However, the general look of academic regalia seems timeless in the past few centuries. In conclusion, the cap and gown tradition has been alive and evolving for centuries and will always remain an important part of one’s academic experience.
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