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Most of us learn about graduation traditions from movies and books, but where do they come from? In this handy guide, we’ve shared the history of tossing graduation caps at the end of the big ceremony. We’ve also explained why the tradition is still going strong, and why some schools have decided to ban the practice.
Graduation caps and gowns were originally worn in the 12th century. During that time period, universities did not have central heating systems, and the auditoriums were quite cold. Wearing long robes helped students and teachers to keep warm, and they took inspiration from clerical clothing as well. Over time, the attire naturally became associated with academia.
By the 14th century, universities like Oxford and Cambridge mandated that graduates wear caps and gowns as a symbol of unification. Today’s graduation cap is also known as a mortarboard, because it resembles a tool for holding and applying mortar. This style of cap is believed to be an evolution of the biretta, which Catholic clerics and professors wore in the 15th century.
In 1912, the Naval Academy became the first institution to start tossing graduation caps at their commencement ceremonies. This is because Navy graduates had to serve their first two years as midshipmen before becoming full-fledged officers, and they needed to wear a different hat during this period. When the midshipmen finally graduated, a new hat was presented to the officers, and they tossed their old caps into their air. The tradition quickly spread to universities across the nation, becoming the triumphant symbol that it is today.
In recent years, schools like the University of East Anglia have ended the cap toss in reaction to student injuries. Instead, they’ve asked graduates to mime the toss so that a graphic designer can add caps in Photoshop. This has angered many students, because they feel that this seminal moment has been taken away from them. However, tossing graduation caps isn’t the safest activity in the world.
Finally, the tassel tradition has only gained popularity in the last 50 years or so. Graduates move their tassel from right to left after receiving their diploma, which symbolizes their transition from student to graduate.
At GraduationSource, we love traditions that bring students together to celebrate their tremendous achievements. Visit our blog to learn more about university history and traditions.