Academic graduation ceremonies, particularly those from undergraduate and graduate school institutions, are steeped in history and tradition. From the robes worn to the hoods dawned to the colors chosen, every detail has meaning. Some traditions, such as which colors represent which field of study and what type of hood may be added to a graduation robe, are long-standing traditions going back centuries or more. Other traditions, such as moving your tassel from one side of your cap to another, are newer traditions.
Graduation Costume History
The origins of academic dress including hats, tassels, gowns and hoods date back to the 12th century when universities first began to organize. Oxford and Cambridge colleges in England instituted dress rules for academic ceremonies when Henry VIII ruled. While European universities vary in the traditions they use, American schools follow a uniform costume code established by Gardner Cotrell Leonard in 1893.
Cap and Tassel
Caps are usually black and generally made from cotton, broadcloth, rayon or silk. They match the gown material and are only velvet when used for a doctoral degree candidate. A long tassel is fastened to the middle point of the top of the cap. While there is no long-standing official tradition for placement of the tassel, many schools have adopted a practice of asking candidates to start the graduation ceremony with their tassels on the front right side of the cap until the degrees are conferred, at which point tassels are moved to the left front side of the cap. The practice is done as a substitute for individual hooding, which is a tradition where master's and doctor's candidates have a hood with their specific discipline colors placed on them by a school representative when their degrees are conferred upon them. The practice is a visual indication of the fact that the person can now claim title to the academic degree he earned.
Gowns have pointed sleeves and are worn closed. Gowns for masters degree candidates differ slightly in that they have oblong sleeves and doctoral degree candidates wear gowns with bell-shaped sleeves. Most gowns are black with trimmings in different colors depending on the discipline of study, although some schools require gowns in their school colors.
Like caps and gowns, hoods have a black base and vary in length depending on the degree being earned. Bachelor degree hoods are shortest at 3 feet, followed by master's degree hoods at 3 1/2-feet and doctor's degree hoods at 4 feet. Doctor's degree hoods also have panels on the sides. Hoods are lined with the official colors of the school giving the degree and are trimmed with a 2- (bachelor's), 3- (master's) or 5-inch (doctor's) edging in the color of the discipline which the candidate is receiving his degree.