Spring commencement is just days away. The Portland State ceremony is a formal rite of passage full of ritual, with faculty and students in traditional regalia. But what are the regalia all about? Where did these customs begin? Students who participate in the June 11 commencement ceremony will be wearing a little bit of academic history.
Today’s academic costume dates back at least 800 years. In medieval Europe, both men and women wore gowns or robes, varying in color, fabric and design according to the wealth and station of the wearer. Since buildings were made of stone and lacked central heating, the long robes were eminently practical.
The modern academic gown can be traced to the Council of Oxford in 1222. Stephen Langton, an English medieval archbishop, decreed that all clergy within his jurisdiction should wear the cappa clausa, a closed, flowing gown then popular in lay fashion.
Over time different professions and trades followed suit, adopting their own unique robes. The medieval universities – such as Oxford and Cambridge – were no exception, organizing themselves into guilds and prescribing a specific academic dress and control over the details.
So serious was this visual identification that it was a criminal offense for non-university members to wear the traditional cap, gown and hood.
Academic robes eventually evolved into specific costumes for bachelors of arts (apprentices), masters of arts (teachers) and doctors (teachers with additional postgraduate studies). The distinction between masters and doctors is a modern one; both masters and doctoral levels of achievement imply the right to teach.
The earliest hooded (or cowled) gowns were functional, providing warmth in the unheated English monasteries and stone buildings. The long cowl – worn over a short cape known as a tippet – was the progenitor of today’s academic hood.
The modern academic hood is a purely ornamental item that hangs over the shoulders and down the wearer’s back. This style stems from the way that monks used their hoods as both a type of antique messenger bag and as a place to keep offerings from benefactors and well-wishers.
Today’s academic hoods are almost always black. The lining color designates the university bestowing the degree, while the decorative facing indicates the field of study. The hood is a traditional part of the academic costume for masters and doctors. Some institutions also still use a short hood for bachelors, although this is rarely seen.
The cap and tassel
The earliest version of the academic cap was probably the skullcap, which replaced the hooded portion of the cowled robe. The skullcap became the favorite headdress of England’s medieval laity and was formally adopted by the Church in 1311.
What we know as today’s mortarboard came from the pileus quadralus, Oxford’s traditional square cap, a close-fitting felt variation on the skullcap.
As for the term “mortarboard,” it comes from an 1854 novel, “The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green.” The character of Green was a fictional Oxford freshman, and “mortarboard” was a sarcastic reference to the shape of his cap, which resembled the mortar-carrying tool used by masons.
Today’s mortarboard is worn with one point forward between the eyes, and with the flat surface horizontal.
More decorative cap variations were first conferred for the master’s degree and were round with a tuft in the center. These evolved into the multi-pointed velvet beret of the doctoral cap.
Today’s tassel is an elaboration of the original master’s tuft. The tassel is traditionally worn on the wearer’s right before the conferring of degrees, and is moved to the left afterwards.
Most universities use honor cords to designate students who graduate with honors. The cords are a remnant of the medieval cleric’s stole, and are worn around the neck with the tasseled ends hanging loosely down the front. In most cases, gold cords identify those graduating summa cum laude (with highest distinction); silver, magna cum laude (with great distinction); and bronze, cum laude (with distinction).
The class ring
The class ring may have its origins with the ancient Egyptians, who wore their seal and signet scarab rings continually while alive and also wore them after death, often with the ring hand crossed over the heart. The Romans, too, were fond of rings, believing that gold rings bestowed nobility.
The first U.S. class rings originated at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1835. Academic rings quickly gained in popularity and today are an important part of graduation, particularly at the Ivy League schools and service academies. Today’s rings are made of precious metals and feature not only gems but also engraved images of college mascots and fighting mottos.
Tradition holds that the academic ring is properly worn on the “ring” finger of the right hand. This dates back to the times of knighthood, with knights wearing their rings on the right hand for extra strength.
In medieval times, much writing was done on prepared animal skins, as they were cheaper and more available than paper. Commonly used was sheepskin. To “hang your sheepskin on the wall” was therefore to display proof of your educational credentials.
The earliest diplomas were rolled up scroll-fashion and tied with ribbons. At the turn of the 20th century, rolled diplomas gave way to flat versions in leather binders.
Academic attire in the United States
During the latter part of the 19th century, styles of academic gowns proliferated, prompting representative trustees from interested institutions to convene in 1895 at Columbia University.
The result of the meeting was the creation of the Intercollegiate Costume Code, regulating the cut, style and materials of gowns, specifying different colors for different disciplines and describing the details of how the attire would be worn.
According to the ICC, no corsages or jewelry are to be pinned to the robe, and both women and men are to wear flat shoes when in academic costume.
Today, universities are still subject to the ICC, but most also retain their own costuming customs as allowed by its guidelines. One has only to watch a procession of university faculty – representing a wide array of home institutions – to see the variety of expressions in academic garb.
The widest range of costume distinction is in doctoral robes. When a university is given the right to confer doctoral degrees, it also gains the privilege of designing unique regalia for its doctoral graduates.
Hood and tassel colors at PSU
Brown: School of Fine & Performing Arts (BA, BS, MA, MFA)
Gold: College of Liberal Arts (BS, MS, MST)
Nugget: School of Business Administration (BA, BS, MBA, MT)
Orange: School of Engineering & Applied Science (BA, BS, MA, MS, ME)
Peacock blue: College of Urban and Public Affairs (BA, BS, MA, MS, MPA, MURP)
Pink: School of Fine and Performing Arts (BM, MAT, MST)
White: College of Liberal Arts & Sciences (BA, MA, MAT)
Citron: School of Social Work (MST)
Light blue: School of Education (MAS MED)
Salmon: School of Urban and Public Affairs (MPH)