Where Did The Cap and Gown Tradition Come From?

It's graduation season! Check out the colorful history of the cap and gown tradition during ceremonies.

Graduation. A time to celebrate the next chapter in a person’s life. The academic costume (gowns or robes) worn at many American colleges and high schools today goes back to the Middle Ages, and many stemmed from religious associations.

The oldest universities of northern Europe, such as Paris and Oxford, grew out of church schools, and both faculty and students in the Middle Ages were regarded as part of the clergy. As such, the students wore clerical garb that was similar to the monastic dress of their day, both on a daily basis and on special occasions. Who knew this was the start of the cap and gown tradition that we have today?

Cap and Gown Traditions

The story of the graduation robe’s head covering has an interesting history. It all began with the clergy’s skullcap to protect their tonsured heads during cold weather. Over time, this skullcap evolved in universities, acquiring a point on top, which eventually turned into the familiar tassel we see today. Although the medieval tassel has been preserved, the more recognizable mortarboard has replaced the skullcap.

College Graduates – Fur?

In the Middle Ages, undergraduates, bachelors, and masters could be distinguished by the simplicity or elaborateness of their gowns—the masters’ gowns were often furred–and this survives today in the ornamentation found on doctoral gowns.

What Do The Colors Mean?

The wide velvet borders extending down the front of the doctoral gown and the velvet bars on the sleeves are usually black, or may match the border of the hoods, which are colored according to the scholarly field of the wearer: i.e., philosophy, dark blue; theology, scarlet; law, purple.

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