Why Graduates Dress the Way They Do

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Cecil College
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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 accoutrements 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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May 21, 2015 - 6:02pm
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