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Graduation Regalia: A Little History

What’s with the funny hat?

An evolution of couture

Federico da Montefeltro - 1422

Federico da Montefeltro,
circa 1464

 Linus Pauling - 1922

Linus Pauling, 1922

CNM Graduate, 2014

CNM Graduate, 2013

Today’s graduation ceremony has a long history, dating back to medieval academic rituals and customs. And graduation regalia is at least that old, since each item of the graduate’s apparel evolved from the clothing of Dark Ages Europe.

  • Early scholars usually worked in monasteries or churches and wore long robes and hoods to keep warm in the unheated buildings. In 1321 this garb this garb was established by guild rules as the official dress code for both students and their teachers.
  • The custom remains official today: The American Council on Education appointed a Committee on Academic Costumes and Ceremonies in 1959 to revisit U.S. regalia rules written in 1895. That committee made a few changes, but we still show up for graduation in robes.
    • Yes, it matters whether the robe is worn closed or open. There are rules about that to, which may vary from one school to the next, but basically it’s fastened for associate and bachelor degrees. Open for the master’s and closed again for the doctorate.
  • There are also firm rules about academic headgear. Tradition for associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree winners in the U.S. has settled upon the classic “mortarboard” – so called for its resemblance to the “hawk” used by bricklayers and plasterers.
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    • If you go on to earn a doctorate, you’ll probably wear the stylish “tam” or a “tudor bonnet.”)
  • And that tassel? It goes on the right-front side until the degree is awarded, then it is moved to the left. This is called “turning the tassel.” And you earned it.

By the way … if it feels a little funny wearing that mortarboard to graduation, just imagine how much worse it could be. Well into the 20th century, especially in Europe but also in the U.S. and elsewhere, faculty were expected to wear their academic regalia — including the cap — every day at work.