The History Behind Graduation Caps and Gowns


Men normally dress in a suit and tie for most formal events and ceremonies, while women often don a lovely dress or gown. So why are long black robes and mortarboard caps worn by attendees during graduation ceremonies?

In Oxford, England, during the Middle Ages, when academic buildings were not heated, students and

faculty members donned hooded gowns every day to remain warm.

This is where the custom of caps and gowns originated. The traditional conflict between “Town and Gown” was established by the black gowns, which also served to separate students from town residents.

Academic regalia has a long history in the United States, dating back to the universities of the colonial era that adopted European customs. One of the oldest institutions in the country is Columbia University, which is situated in the city of New York.

King George II of England issued a royal licence in October 1754 that allowed Columbia to be established as the King’s College. Both Princeton University and Columbia University obliged students to dress in their “college habits” every day.

Up to the end of the Civil War, Columbia University students always donned caps and gowns. Academic attire was often only worn beyond this point for formal events or while representing the university in other contexts.

The academic dress code for hoods and gowns across American institutions was not standardized throughout the colonial era. The trustees of Princeton University chose a faculty member in 1893 to collaborate with Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and other colleges to create a standard academic attire.

To establish a standard design and colour for hoods and gowns, the American Intercollegiate Commission convened a meeting at Columbia University in 1894. It was determined that everyone would wear black robes or gowns.

Doctors’ gowns were to be faced with black velvet with three bars across the sleeves, while bachelors’ gowns were to be made of worsted wool with pointed sleeves, masters’ gowns were to be made of silk with long closed sleeves, and so on.

The length of the hood would vary depending on the degree awarded and be made of the same material as the robe. The academic field for the degree being acquired would be indicated by the colour of the hood’s border.

The Intercollegiate Bureau of Academic Costume has standardised the colours used to denote the many learning domains in the United States. These colours are frequently seen in the hood trim, tassels, or gown facing.

A graduate is required by the code to display the colour of the degree’s topic. As an illustration, light blue denotes education, light brown, business, brown, fine arts and architecture, orange, engineering, pink, music, green, and dark blue, respectively, symbolize medicine, and philosophy.

With a few clarifications and updates throughout the years, the code has mostly stayed unaltered. The oldest college in the country, Harvard University, which was founded as Harvard College in 1636, first made the decision to not adhere to the Intercollegiate Commission code but eventually consented to partially comply with it.

The square academic cap, which is based on British traditions and is typically worn by graduates in many nations, including the United States, is also known as a mortarboard due to its resemblance to the mortarboard used by brick masons to contain mortar.

It is said that the biretta, a square hat used by Roman Catholic clergy, is where the mortarboard got its start. Except for the gold tassel, which is designated for use with the doctoral gown, the academic cap’s tassel must be either black or the colour appropriate for the topic, according to the American Council on Education rule. After receiving the diploma, the tassel should be placed on the left side of the cap instead of the right.

High school and college graduates still follow customs from the Middle Ages by donning the customary black gown and four-cornered mortarboard cap with a black tassel. These ancient customs could be mixed with more recent local customs from the graduates’ particular schools. These customs enhance the meaning of graduation and contribute to the uniqueness of this occasion, making it remarkable not only for the graduates but also for their families and fellow grads.