The history of the cap and gown

BYU-I graduates listen to speakers at the commencement ceremony. Photo credit: BYU-Idaho

The air-conditioned auditorium sits still, awaiting its occupants, and smells of mahogany and new carpet.

A familiar “Pomp and Circumstance” wedges its way into the scene with the awaited clash of cymbals. As the music steadies to a melodious ebb and flow, the audience pays attention to the flood of students at the entrance of the auditorium.

The flood begins to trickle into the rest of the auditorium like a steady stream. If one looks closely at the stream of students, they will see the black squared hats, the long, shapeless robes and the gold tassels.

Graduation is a time to gather and celebrate, but one may ask, “Why the cap and gown?”

The cap and gown is a tradition that reaches down into the deep roots of world history, but what does it all mean? Why are we using the cap and gown today?

Mallory Nordfelt, a junior studying history education, said the cap and gown were originally used in universities for religious purposes back in the 12th and 13th centuries.

These universities were run by religious clergymen who would wear robes and hoods to signify distinction from the general public. These robes also proved additional warmth for clergymen in the stony, unheated halls of churches.

“These gowns were always worn and signified a higher status in the towns the establishments were in,” Nordfelt said. “There was a distinction between the educated and uneducated.”

Eventually, these traditions carried on from European churches to colonial America.

Once the U.S. gained freedom from the British empire, there were many ill feelings toward any British tradition.

“After the Civil War, however, many Americans had a major distaste for anything British, so they did away with the everyday wear of the gowns and hoods,” Nordfelt said. “They reserved them only for tradition purposes and wore them solely for graduation ceremonies.”

The cap eventually was traded out for the hood in the 19th century and is now what we see in our graduation ceremonies.

But what about the different types of robes? After all, someone graduating from Harvard Law School won’t be wearing the same kind of cap and gown as a student graduating with a bachelor’s degree from BYU-Idaho.

The difference is this: A student graduating with an associate degree or bachelor’s degree wears a simple, closed gown with pointed sleeves and a traditional cap and tassel. A student graduating with a master’s degree wears a gown with oblong sleeves and a distinctive stole —a strip of fabric that drapes over the shoulders and is meant to show ecclesiastical or academic distinction.

A student receiving a doctorate will have their cap and gown fully trimmed with three velvet bars on the sleeve — the color of the bars will vary depending on what discipline the student studied.

So, the history of the cap and gown is clear now. But why are graduates still wearing them today? Well, the cap and gown signify unity. And they continue to signify that regardless of one’s nationality, socioeconomic status, gender or education, all are united and equal through education

If you have questions about graduation or how to apply to graduate, visit the school’s graduation website.