Graduation is around the corner, filling eager graduates with an overwhelming mix of excitement and nerves. Whether you yourself are graduating this May or just attending as a supportive guest, you’re sure to notice the wide range of colors and tassels hanging from graduates and faculty. Even the robes themselves seem an odd way to honor graduating students. Why we wear them and what they mean requires a brief history lesson.
The tradition of wearing robes in academia dates back to the 12th century. Scholars and clerics wore hooded robes because universities often didn’t have sufficient heat for the long, late hours of studying. Robes quickly became the official garb for those in academia as a way for students and professors to identify themselves as such to others.
Square academic hats — called a mortarboard because of its resemblance to the tools used by brick masons to hold mortar — became popular among academics in the 15th century. Worn by scholarly clergies, students, humanists and artists, the mortarboard’s predecessor was typically red to represent blood, life and vitality. These hats were another way for academics to distinguish themselves and show off their superiority and intelligence.
English universities such as Oxford and Cambridge were among the first to implement a dress code. Schools founded during the American colonial period followed suit, with Princeton, Brown and Columbia all mandating that their students wear academic robes while on campus.
In March 1786, the Corporation of the Universities mandated that all students and alumni wear black gowns and caps at commencement. While eventually schools stopped requiring robes for daily wear, the tradition of wearing a cap and gown to graduation has persisted.
In 1894, the American Intercollegiate Commission met at Columbia, where the different universities discussed official graduation wear. Harvard decided they were too cool for school and sat out of the meeting. This meeting solidified the traditional use of black for graduation robes and clearly established rules for even minor details. The commission even specified what type of fabric should make up the different robes. Bachelor’s student’s gowns have pointed sleeves, made from the cheapest and worst materials. Master’s robes were made from silk. The lining of the robe’s hood shows off the school’s colors, while the border color on the hood indicates the degree earned by the wearer.
One of the primary motivations behind standard graduation regalia was equality. A person from a wealthy family and person who attended school on a scholarship were equals in academia and should graduate that way, as equals. Although those deciding on robe rules probably just meant equality among other white men, today this gesture can apply to everyone pursuing a degree.
Over the years, various committees and meetings have met and changed the rules for graduation regalia. The Committee on Academic Costumes and Ceremonies was created in 1959, a committee that has since clarified and made changes to the official standards for a graduation dress. Generally, bachelor’s degree students should wear a closed gown with pointed sleeves, while master’s gowns have oblong sleeves. Black is suggested, but some schools opt for school colors over tradition. Ph.D. robes come with a host of rules involving bars of velvet down the front and back and three bars on the sleeves.
While most schools adhere to the standard rules of graduation dress, some break away from tradition. Even Columbia, a participant in the 1894 commission, has opted for light blue robes instead of the traditional black. The U sticks with the standard black with a block U printed on the sleeve, a rather recent tradition.
In addition to the robes, you may notice varying tassels, cords and sashes on graduation day. Different societies and organizations may provide students with these items, but there are some standards practiced by most schools.
The tasseled cords worn around the shoulders indicates the individual is graduating with honors. One pair of cords for cum laude, two for magna cum laude, three for summa cum laude. Separate honors societies may also provide extra cords. Gold is the most common color, used to honor students with high grade point averages or National Honor Society students, but honors students may also receive cords in the color of their degree.
Many students opt to wear a sash called a Stole of Gratitude. At the U, these are red to match the school’s colors. Traditionally, students wear a Stole of Gratitude to the ceremony then present the stole to someone who supported them throughout college. Many students, even friends and family, will sign or decorate the stole with a permanent marker.
Not every school requires students to follow all the graduation regalia rules, but it’s encouraged. Many schools, including the U, require students to wear a cap and gown to take part in the commencement ceremony. If you don’t wear a robe, you don’t walk.
Graduating this May but still haven’t picked up your robe? The campus store has you covered with robe packages and U-themed tassels for students who want to jazz up their look on graduation day. The last day to place online orders for graduation regalia is April 26. You can also attend the Late Grad Fair at the campus store April 30 through May 1.