The Tradition of Graduates Wearing Caps and Gowns

graduation throwing caps
Have you ever wondered why graduates wear caps and gowns, and why do they throw their caps into the air when they graduate? Donning on academic robes is a tradition that dates back to at least the 12th century (year 1101 to 1200)! That is almost a thousand year tradition! It started around the time when the first universities were being founded in Europe. During this time, most university students were clerics (priests/religious leaders) or aspiring clerics, and excess in apparel was not encouraged.
In the beginning, it is thought that there was hardly any difference between what the academics were wearing and the laity, since they both tend to wear very plainly colored garments. Aside from that, the clothing was simply practical for everyone. Universities back then were very different from the ones we have now. When the universities were originally formed, they had no official buildings of their own to conduct lectures, so classes typically took place in nearby churches. Their simple robes and outer covering kept them warm in the drafty medieval churches, and it acted as a form of raincoat too, they had hoods to cover their heads with when it rained outside.
The earliest standardization of academic garb occurred as a byproduct of a 1222 edict by Stephen Langton at the Council of Oxford, where it was declared that all clerks should wear a form of the cappa clausa, a long cape typically worn over a robe. In short order, this became thought of as a mark of an academic as the newly minted universities adopted it for the aforementioned reasons, while at the same time the clergy in general (outside of academic contexts) over time wore it less and less. By 1321, this ultimately lead to the University of Coimbra mandating that plain gowns be worn by Licentiates, Bachelors, and Doctors. By Tudor times, more or less this same basic standard had been set for academic dress at Oxford and Cambridge.
The robes maintained their design but more comfortable versions emerged without the thick outer covering. Robes remained very plain and dull, generally black. It was only a few centuries later in the late 1800s that certain colors were designated to represent specific areas of study, with standards varying from university to university, or country to country.
So we got the gowns covered, now moving on to the goofy caps we call mortarboards. Mortarboards are called as such due to it resembling the flat board used by bricklayers to hold mortar (called a 'hawk'). The cap consists of a flat, square board stuck onto a skullcap with a jaunty tassel hanging off from the center of the square board. Some historians suggest the mortarboard is the descendant of the biretta, which was headgear often sported by Roman Catholic clerics, scholars and professors. This, in turn, probably derives from common pileus (brimless hat) worn by the laity. The wearing of this hat was first ordered in 1311 by the Church at the Synod of Bergamo, spreading from there as standard headgear by clerics.
By the 15th century, the mortarboard was incorporated into the standard garb for many scholars, among others. It did not use to be as plain as it is today, earlier versions of it feature elaborate embroidery and adornments.
Previously, the mortarboard was reserved only for people who have earned master or doctorate degrees. As explained by French Historian Jacques Le Goff:
“Once he had passed the examination, the candidate became licensed, however he could only possess the title of “doctor” and teach as a Master following the public examination … In this way, he assumed for the first time the role of the Master in a university setting. After this, the archdeacon ceremoniously conferred upon him the authorization to teach, along with the symbolic regalia appropriate to his function: a professorial chair, an open book, a golden ring, and the mortar board or cap.”
In modern times, one does not have to earn the title of “master” or “doctor” to wear a cap. Almost all graduates, even children who finish Kindergarten school are entitled to wear mortarboards for their graduation ceremony nowadays.
The act of throwing the mortarboard into the air at the end of the ceremony is a trend that was just recently conceived, it did not date back to hundreds of years ago. The first known instance of this was in 1912 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. There are numerous accounts as to how that came abut, but the general story is that the Acdemy decided to give them their officers' hats at the graduation itself. Thus, the graduates chucked their midshipmen's caps in the air upon graduation and ceremoniously placed their new officers' hats on. Unfortunately, how this trend caught on with universities have been lost in time.
So from medieval abbeys where the style of dress was more or less just a version of what most people wore in parts of Europe at the time, to modern high school gyms where the garb is decidedly out of place outside of certain ceremonies, caps and gowns have continued to denote academic accomplishment, with no sign of the tradition letting up any time soon.
Information Source: Today I Found Out
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