Graduation Ceremony Attire History

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Graduation Ceremony Attire History
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Many students probably did not even think about why the dress code at the graduation ceremony at the university consists of ceremonial gowns and square academic caps. Like a wedding, graduation is an important cultural tradition consisting of three ritual stages. During the ceremony, the graduate seems to leave the usual society, undergoes a transformation and finally returns back to society with a new status. The history of academic caps and graduation gowns goes back centuries.

Why wear mortarboards and graduation robes?

So why do graduates wear caps and graduation gowns? Academic regalia appeared in the XII and XIII centuries together with the first universities. Usually at that time, students and teachers wore church robes, as the church enjoyed great influence. Many professors were priests, monks, or clerics, and their students were also trained for ordination. According to historians, they wore long robes with hoods so as not to freeze in unheated university buildings.

The symbolism of the hood dates back to the culture of the Celtic peoples and the druid priests, who considered it a sign of higher intelligence and superiority.

ceremonial garment
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Concept of ceremonial garment

It appeared due to medieval universities. Still, Oxford and Cambridge became the first recognized educational institutions that regulated graduation attires. Since 1321, students of these universities have been required to wear academic gowns demonstrating unity.

The graduation headdress has been undergoing changes for many centuries. The most common option is an academic cap with a flat square top. The cap appeared in the XV century. It is a modified version of birretta (ital. berretta from lat. birretum) – the headdress of Catholic priests, scientists and professors. The appearance of birretta, in turn, dates back to 1311.

Why is it square?

There is no definite answer. Most historians believe that the square academic cap symbolizes the book, giving the graduate a scholarly look, or the square courtyard of the Oxford campus.

The name of the square horizontal top of the academic caps came from the name of the mortar board used for the preparation of cement mortar. There is an opinion that the symbolism of the student cap is connected with the case of skilled workers.

Despite the uncertain origin, nowadays the academic cap does not lose its relevance. The cap and mantle mean recognition and achievements of the graduate.

graduation robes
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Twentieth century

Until the 1950s., caps and graduation ceremony dresses in the USA were predominantly gray. Still, in the 1950s, students increasingly began to prefer coloured academic uniforms to emphasize belonging to a particular educational institution, as was customary in Europe since the 1800s. Unfortunately, until the 1960s, colour photography was quite expensive, so most of the graduation pictures have reached us in black and white. Nevertheless, for several centuries, the general appearance of university regalia has not changed much. The tradition of wearing a cap and a robe to graduation lives and develops even after so many centuries. It will never lose its status as an important part of the university learning experience.