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Why Graduates Dress the Way They Do

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Cecil College
Cecil College class of 2015. Cecil College via Flickr // Public Domain

My mind and my time have been preoccupied this week because my older daughter is graduating from high school this weekend. I’ve been to her art show, awards ceremony, spring concert, banquets, parties, the baccalaureate service, and still have more to come. We’ve assembled a dress, mortarboard, tassel, gown, stole, and honor cords to wear. It’s hard to remember, but both my graduations back in the ‘70s seemed simpler. I could have worn the same cheap black gown for both high school and college graduation. And the same gold tassel, too.

BYU-Hawaii Class of 2011. BYU–Hawaii via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While students usually buy a fairly inexpensive version of the traditional cap and gown to be worn once, my father was a college professor and invested in a costly black wool academic ensemble that could be worn again and again. After all, he attended commencement ceremonies three times a year for 30 years. I always felt sorry for him during hot graduation days with long-winded speakers. At colleges and universities today, you may see a wide variety of academic gowns and colors. Oh, the graduating students will wear mostly the same type of gowns, but professors and visiting dignitaries will often wear the academic attire of the institution they graduated from, possibly decades ago. And among the students, there will be colors assigned to their discipline, gown styles assigned by degree, and different stoles and cords to indicate honors and affiliations.

The first real universities were born of religious orders in the 12th and 13th centuries. The uniform of the student was therefore the garb of a initiate or a monk, meaning a long plain robe with a hood, with a cap and/or a stole added along the way to indicate rank. As more universities were founded by different religious orders, the uniforms became more varied. Even today, the traditional styles of graduation dress at European schools depend on long running tradition within the institution, and vary widely between colleges.

In America in the 18th century, students wore their academic caps and gowns to all classes. By the turn of the 19th century, this started to give away to wearing the gown only on designated days, and after the Civil War only for occasions in which one represented his university or graduation ceremonies.

Oxford College senior class 1907. Miami University Libraries - Digital Collections via Flickr // Public Domain

Each college developed their own traditions and therefore their own academic costumes. Over time, as colleges proliferated, the ceremonial gowns varied so greatly that they were recognized by few outside the particular campus. In 1895, a plan was conceived to standardize the academic wear of American colleges and universities, which helped to set the cap and gown style we all recognize today. The standards were based on the traditions at Columbia University. Different configurations were set for the gown and hood to recognize the wearer’s academic rank and degree, and colors were assigned to signify the wearer’s discipline. However, the Academic Costume Code (adopted in 1932) recognizes that there is no authority to enforce the code and that variances will occur among schools.

It should be noted that it is impossible (and probably undesirable) to lay down enforceable rules with respect to academic costume. The governing force is tradition and the continuity of academic symbols from the Middle Ages.

The tradition should be departed from as little as possible, not only to preserve the symbolism of pattern and color, but for practicality as well (when radical changes are adopted manufacturing problems and scarcity of inventory may ensue).

College of Business and Technology Class of 2009. College of Business and Technology via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Changes occurred, alright. Schools began to distinguish themselves by using gowns in the school colors instead of the recommended black. But the basic shape stayed to signify what the gown meant.

Berkeley High School class of 2012. Berkeley Unified School District via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

High schools gradually adopted the traditions of college academic wear for commencement ceremonies. The ceremonial hood and ranked stripes were dispensed with, as everyone gets the same diploma. Otherwise, each school sets their own traditions for graduation wear, although most adhere to the basic college style, simplified.

Puyallup High School class of 2005. Quinn Dombrowski via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

The distinctions in rank in the college code have also been adapted somewhat for high schools. Different colored stoles, cords, and tassels indicate club affiliations, offices held, class rank, or honors conveyed. Some schools want students to select one stole and/or tassel indicating their highest honor (as colleges do), while others will allow students to wear as many of each as they like. And the graduate can wear as many honors cords as they earn. The differences in the students’ appearance can therefore be striking. However, since each accoutrement must be purchased, graduates with a limited budget may have more honors than they wear.

Saint Mary's High School Class of 2010. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Even more individuality can be achieved by decorating the top of one’s mortarboard cap. Students discovered long ago they can do this to enable family and friends to recognize them from above while they sit in a sea of similarly-dressed fellow graduates, while preserving the uniform look for pictures taken from the front. A few graduates did this decades ago, but it became quite popular in the 1990s. The decorations may includes words, pictures, or even attached objects to illustrate one’s name, discipline, or interests. Some take the opportunity for a joke. You can make your own, or even have your mortarboard decoration professionally produced

Tulane class of 2013. Tulane Public Relations via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

If you are graduating from any level of school this spring, congratulations and best wishes for the future!

See also: The Stories Behind Graduation Traditions

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20 Old Hat Styles Due for a Comeback
John Firth, BIPs/Getty Images
John Firth, BIPs/Getty Images

One thing that illustrated and photographic archives have taught us is that people have always known how to rock a stylish piece of headwear. From squat caps to towering toppers, history has produced a hat for every occasion. Here are 20 old styles that, with a healthy dose of fashion and confidence, could still look just as fabulous today.

1. THE CLOCHE

A woman wearing a cloche hat decorated with flowers.
Sasha, Getty Images

The sleek, head-hugging cloche was the perfect companion to the bobbed hairstyle worn by flappers in the 1920s. The hats were typically left plain to emphasize their bell-shaped silhouette, though they also offered a blank canvas for embellishment. The cloche was most popular during the Jazz Age but it’s occasionally incorporated into retro fashion styles today.

2. THE OTTOMAN HEADDRESS

A drawing of a man wearing an Ottoman headdress.

In Ottoman ceremonial costumes, hats played a starring role. The headgear often featured bright colors, feathery ornamentations, and elaborate designs that signified status. The wearer’s class, religion, gender, and clan could all be gleaned from the way the fabric in their headdress was layered.

3. THE BOWLER HAT

Oscar Wilde wearing a bowler hat in 1885.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The top hat was popular in the 19th century but it wasn't always the most practical choice for outdoor activities. When looking for a way to protect the heads of horseback riders from branches, brothers Thomas and William Bowler came up with their namesake cap. The bowler hat was sturdy, compact, and appropriate for most any occasion. Though the bowler hat largely fizzled out by the 1980s, the item's original London manufacturers Lock & Co. still sell thousands each year.

4. THE PILLBOX HAT

Woman wearing a pillbox hat in the 1960s.
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

Unlike some hats from history, this one was prized for its simplicity. It could be easily identified by its brimless, round shape evoking that of a pillbox. It began gaining steam in the 1930s before reaching peak popularity with First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s.

5. THE FASCINATOR

Victoria Beckham wearing a fascinator in 2007.
Mark Mainz, Getty Images

Depending on the look you’re going for, a fascinator can be worn as a subtle accent item or a show-stealing statement piece. The hat is defined as an ornamental headpiece that’s secured to the crown using a headband or comb. Once they fit that criteria, fascinators can take the form of flowers, feathers, fabric, or whatever else the wearer can engineer to stay on their head. And though they're still popular in the U.K., Americans don't tend to utilize fascinators outside of Derby Day attire.

6. THE TRI-CORNER HAT

A tri-cornered hat from Spain, circa 1780.
Gabriel Bouys, AFP/Getty Images

In 17th century Europe and America, tri-cornered hats, or tricornes, gave men the opportunity to show off their lustrous wigs poking out from beneath the upturned brim. It's no surprise then that the hat style died out with the powdered wig fad, but that doesn't mean it isn't fit for a comeback. Even if wearers don't have wigs to flaunt, they could take a page from our forefathers' book and upgrade the hat itself with feathers, brocades, and fabrics—or maybe just sports insignias.

7. THE DEERSTALKER HAT

British actor Peter Cushing wearing a deerstalker hat circa 1960.
Keystone/Getty Images

If you’ve seen this hat anywhere, it was most likely on the head of someone portraying Sherlock Holmes. The headpiece has been tied to the character since the books were published in the 19th century (it was the illustrations—not the story—that did it, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never mentions the cap in the text). It’s peculiar that an urban detective would be wearing a deerstalker hat in the first place, considering they were designed for hunting game and not tracking clues, but the smartly styled hat's comeback should be ... elementary.

8. THE HENNIN

Illustration of a French woman wearing a hennin in the 15th century.
plaisanter, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

These striking hats were a clear sign of royalty in the medieval era. Reinforced with wire or padding and draped in fine fabric, the cone-shaped hennin is still synonymous with the stereotypical princess today. English hennins were fairly modest in height, but the French version reached up to to three feet and the hat's Mongolian predecessor towered five to seven feet high.

9. THE NEWSBOY CAP

Newsboys in St. Louis in 1910.
Lewis Hine, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This hat goes by many names (the big apple, the eight panel, the Gatsby), but its strongest association is with newsboys at the turn of the 20th century. The floppy, brimmed cap wasn't just popular with the younger working class. It was worn by men across the social ladder and was a common sight on the golf course.

10. THE PEACH BASKET HAT

Actress Marion Davies in a peach basket hat.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The origin of this hat name isn't too hard to figure out: It resembles a bulky, over-turned fruit basket. The peach basket hat first appeared at the start of the 20th century, but it was shunned by many for being an "unpatriotic" display of vanity during the first world war. It was revived in the 1930s and experienced a popularity streak until the 1950s.

11. THE PORK PIE HAT

Actor Buster Keaton wearing his signature pork pie hat in 1939.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This hat is known for having a domed crown inside a pinched rim, creating a shape similar to that of a certain savory pastry. The style was originally worn by women in the 19th century and was later embraced by men’s fashion in the early 1900s (thanks in part to Buster Keaton). It’s not as popular as it was in the 1920s but it recently enjoyed a brief return to the spotlight by way of the Heisenberg character on Breaking Bad.

12. THE CARTWHEEL HAT

Actress Fanny Brice wearing a cartwheel hat circa 1910.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Out of context, a cartwheel hat could be mistaken for an hor d'oeuvres platter or a tiny landing pad. The hat was worn slightly askew for an eye-catching look and was often crafted from luxurious materials. But after catching on in the 1930s, the broad hats have since fallen out of fashion.

13. THE CHAPEAU BRAS

Bicorne hat.
Marie-Lan Nguyen, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

With the chapeau bras, gentlemen in the 18th century proved you don't need to compromise style for convenience. The bicorne shape of the hat was designed to both sit comfortably on a head and fold flat when tucked beneath an arm. The French name roughly translates to "hat arm." It was a popular hat style among military men in the 1800s, including U.S. admiral George Dewey.

14. THE BOUDOIR CAP

Hat on mannequin.

For a brief period at the turn of the 19th century, hair nets were fashionable. Women used boudoir caps to protect their hair while getting dressed in the morning or at night, though more stylish designs also worked as statement-making loungewear. Typically made from silk, muslin, or other lingerie fabric, the cap was the perfect companion to the kimono negligee, which was just beginning to gain popularity in the West at the time.

15. THE EUGÉNIE HAT

Illustration of Victorian woman.

The Eugénie hat is named after Empress Eugénie de Montijo, one half of France’s last reigning royal couple. It’s traditionally made from felt or velvet and worn tilted forward slightly to cover the wearer's eye. The hat saw an initial popularity spike in the mid-19th century, then a second after Greta Garbo worse a version of it in the 1930 film Romance.

16. THE GAINSBOROUGH HAT

Portrait of woman wearing hat.

Gainsborough hats, or picture hats, were popularized by 18th-century artist Thomas Gainsborough, who often depicted the society women in his portraits beneath massive headwear. The hats are known for their wide brims and over-the-top embellishments. It wasn't uncommon to see women walking around with stuffed birds perched on their hats during the style's peak.

17. THE PAMELA BONNET

Woman wearing bonnet.

Named for the protagonist of Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel, the Pamela bonnet was an elegant hat option for women in the 19th century. It's crafted from straw and tied with a ribbon in such a way that folds the wide brims against the wearer's cheeks. The sides of the hat slope down and away from the head, allowing the woman’s fashionable ringlets to peek out.

18. THE HALF HAT

The Queen wearing a half hat and waving from a car.

The sleek, close hat trend reached its peak in the 1950s with the half hat. Part-hat, part-hair accessory, the half hat cups the back of the skull and curves across the crown, stopping just short of the ears. Milliner Lilly Daché received an American Designer award for the hat in 1941.

19. THE WHOOPEE CAP

Actor wearing a hat.

The whoopee cap is best known as the crown hat Jughead wears in the Archie comics. Instead of buying a professionally-made version from a hat shop, wearers fashioned caps of their own by tattering the brims of old fedoras and turning them inside-out. The style appeared recently on Riverdale, the gritty Archie reboot, so a comeback may be on the way.

20. THE HOMBURG

British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden (right) with Neville Chamberlain, Leader of the Conservative Party, wearing Homburg hats while walking in London in 1937.
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Homburg isn't a household name like the top hat or the fedora, but the men’s hat is still a classic. The style is distinguished by a curled brim and a dent depressing the center of the crown. King Edward VII launched the trend in the late 19th century. When he brought a hat back with him following a visit to Bad Homburg, Germany, the rest of the world noticed his new look and started wearing Homburg hats of their own.

A shorter version of this story originally ran in 2017.

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Big Questions
Why Did We Start Wearing Pants?
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It’s a question that has plagued Donald Duck for decades: Who decided pants were necessary? Did the motivation stem purely from modesty, or was there another reason we started climbing into trousers?

Over at Discover, author Sarah Scoles has offered a plausible explanation by describing a 2014 archaeological find in China’s Tarim Basin. Researchers with the German Archaeological Institute excavated what is believed to be the oldest example of pants ever unearthed, made from wool and dating back 3000 years.

The pants themselves held no clue as to why they were made, but their location did. The research team found them buried at the Yanghai cemetery along with a number of other artifacts, including horse-riding gear that was in the same grave: a wooden bit, a bow, and an axe. The pants-wearer was surely someone tasked with galloping around and slaying animals for food—likely necessitating apparel that would allow him to mount a horse without being encumbered by clothing.

A screen shot of Donald Duck near a door
Disney

That idea eventually bled into Greek and Roman culture, where those on horseback sought out a comfortable and practical way of avoiding chafing. (The grave’s proto-pants also appeared to be an early example of being fashion-conscious. While mostly practical, each leg had cross-stitching that appeared to be purely decorative.)

Whether the Yanghai discovery is considered the earliest example of pants depends on how one defines pants. Ötzi, the European iceman first discovered in 1991, lived roughly 5300 years ago and died wearing goatskin leggings. We know a cartoon duck who has a lot of catching up to do.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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