Why Are We Wearing Cardboard On Our Heads?

Why Are We Wearing Cardboard On Our Heads?

Why do we wear caps, gowns, sashes, hoods, etc. in our commencement ceremonies? Here's a look at the history and symbolism behind these wardrobe choices.

Denise Williams

It's that time of year again! Whether you're finishing high school, your undergrad, or beyond, if you choose to attend your commencement ceremony you will be required to wear a cap and gown. Now, depending on what level of education you are completing, your uniform will vary. The rules were established and made uniform back in 1894, by an American Intercollegiate Commission that met in Columbia. They decided at the time that robes would be black, and the material would vary based on the level of education. Bachelors' gowns would have pointed sleeves and thin material, masters' would be silk with long closed sleeves, and the doctors' gown would be velvet with three bars on the sleeves. The hoods would be made from matching the material to the corresponding gown, and the length would vary with the degree being earned.

It was at this time the also assigned color meanings to go with the degree being earned. At the master and doctoral level, this is indicated in the hood. Some schools will give colored tassels to undergrad graduates that follow this code as well. The colors and their meanings are the following:

Brown: Architecture and the Fine Arts

White: Arts and Letters

Light Brown: Business

Lilac: Dentistry

Light Blue: Education

Orange: Engineering

Peacock Blue: International and Public Affairs

Cardinal: Journalism

Purple: Law

Lemon Yellow: Library Service

Green: Medicine

Pink: Music

Apricot: Nursing

Olive: Pharmacy

Dark Blue: Philosophy

Teal: Physical Therapy

Salmon Pink: Public Health

Golden Yellow: Science

Citron Yellow: Social Work

Scarlet: Theology

Prior to the meeting in 1894, academic regalia dates as far back as the 12th and 13th centuries. Early education was connected to the church, and so student and teachers alike wore clerical clothing as a standard daily uniform, not just for commencement. The early robes and hoods are still worn in modern monasteries. In addition to the religious aspect, Historians believe the robes and hoods were helpful in keeping warm in unheated buildings.

Now, that gives some history on the gowns, but what about the cardboard hats we all enjoy decorating? The cap, like the gowns and hoods, also varies by education level. There is the classic mortarboard cap, which is an item of many origin stories. Some say it is named for brick and mortar used by a master craftsman. Some say it is meant to resemble the shape of a book, for its scholarly purpose. Still, others say it is square like the Oxford courtyard, one of the first two universities to require standard attire for a commencement ceremony. While the stories vary, we can say with confidence it is a tradition going back generations and is not likely to change anytime soon.

The other head attire seen at graduations is the graduation tam. Tams are velvety hats worn by graduates of Masters and Doctoral programs, as well as professors at undergraduate ceremonies to distinguish them from the students. The number of sides the tam has indicated the education level. Six-sided as for masters, and 8-sided for doctors. The rules for tassels and other specifics vary by school.

Now, that still doesn't really answer why we wear these. There's the historical aspect, but is that enough? It's more than just the fact that the early scholars dressed this way. It's about unity, tradition, and honor. Like the great scholars of the past, we earn the right to attend commencement ceremonies and become a part of the educated community. The caps, the gowns, the tassels, and cords all represent what we have accomplished, and show that we are ready to contribute to the world around us. Just like a professional athlete wears their uniform proudly, and the scholars of the past were proud to wear theirs, we should be proud to wear our commencement attire, even if it does look a little silly.

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