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The Tradition of the Cap and Gown

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Find out how to properly wear a graduation cap and gown…

Have you ever thought about the tradition of graduates wearing caps and gowns? Although it seems like an archaic practice now, the wearing of caps and gowns is actually practical in origin. In the 13th and 14th centuries, when universities were gaining steam and becoming official, many of the students attending had some degree of religious association. Many “Medieval scholars had made certain vows, and had at least taken minor orders with the church so clerical robes were their main form of dress to begin with,” according to a website of Oak Hall Cap and Gown, a supplier of academic attire. Additionally, the gowns were warm, and before buildings were heated, helped the students endure temperature extremes while sitting still during lessons and lectures. “In 1321, the University of Columbia mandated that all Doctors, Bachelors, and Licentiates must wear gowns. In the latter half of the 14th century, excess in apparel was forbidden in some colleges… (universities demanded the) wearing of a long gown. By the time of England’s Henry VIII, Oxford and Cambridge began using a standard form of academic dress…”

It was only in the United States and not until late in the 1800s that certain areas of study wore certain colors. A man by the name of Gardner Cotrell Leonard from Albany, New York designed gowns for his graduating class at Williams. Later, Mr. Cotrell published an article on academic dress. Soon after, he was asked to work with an intercollegiate commission to form a system for academic apparel. That system of apparel is still in use in the United States today. The colors are symbolic. For example, early medicine made use of plants and herbs so the gowns of students graduating from medical programs are green. Often school colors are used. These days, even kindergarten graduations feature caps and gowns. I have to say that the tiny caps and gowns worn by the kindergarten students at my daughters’ school are adorable, but imagine what scholars of the 1300s would have thought of the practice.

A bit of digging unearthed some etiquette on the wearing of caps and gowns as well. The Oak Hall Cap and Gown Company states the etiquette of wearing a cap and gown as follows:

Etiquette | How to properly wear a graduation cap and gown:

Men: It is recommended that men wear dark trousers or khakis, dark socks, shoes, and a neatly-pressed, light-colored dress shirt with dark tie underneath an academic gown. Jeans and shorts, sandals and tennis shoes should be avoided. The cap is worn flat on the head. The gown should fall midway between the knee and ankle. Tassels are usually worn on the right side and shifted to the left when graduates receive their diplomas. Men should remove their caps during the school song and the National Anthem.

Women: Women graduates should wear dark slacks, dress, or skirt, and a light-colored dress blouse with dark shoes. High heels are not recommended for reasons of safety and comfort, flats or pumps are suggested. Sandals and tennis shoes should not be worn. The cap is worn flat on the head. The gown should fall midway between the knee and ankle. Tassels are usually worn on the right side and shifted to the left when graduates receive their diplomas. Women are allowed to keep their caps on during the National Anthem.

As graduates slip on their gowns and pin their caps in place, it is interesting to think about the tradition they are joining. Although the caps and gowns are no longer a practical need physically, the need for the knowledge students acquire today is practical for survival in a different way.

[AUTHOR: Hilary Doubleday]

May 23, 2015

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