A graduation cap and gown may not seem like much of a fashion statement, but the regalia donned on Commencement day reveals a lot about the wearer — at least academically.
Graduates receiving bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees all wear different graduation robes, while faculty and administrators may be dressed in varied, sometimes exotic, Commencement costumes.
It’s all part of a tradition that dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Students at Oxford and Cambridge universities at that time dressed like clerics (as, indeed, a large percentage of them were) — every day donning robes with hoods, in part to keep warm in unheated classrooms. Over time, skullcaps replaced hoods as headwear, and those caps in turn eventually morphed into the familiar mortarboard (so named for its resemblance to the bricklayer’s tool).
Over the centuries, academic apparel became standardized, with rules regarding the garments’ length, shape, etc. The American Council on Education even appointed a committee to create a code for academic costumes in 1932. Those guidelines — with a few revisions — are still followed today, although individual institutions sometimes add their unique twists.
The garment known as the “cap and gown” can consist of three separate pieces: a mortarboard or tam (with tassel), a gown, and a hood. For the past several years, the gowns worn by Yale graduates have been made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottles using “GreenWeaver” technology developed by Oak Hall Industries of Salem, Virginia.
The sleeves of the gown vary according to the degree the candidate will receive: open, pointed, and untrimmed for a bachelor’s degree; oblong and untrimmed for a master’s; and bell-shaped with three velvet bars for a doctorate.
At Yale, bachelor’s degree candidates do not wear a hood. Should they don academic dress anytime after receiving their degree, they are entitled — according to code — to wear three-foot-long hoods. Master’s candidates and degree-holders wear hoods that are three-and-a-half feet in length, while those of doctoral candidates and holders are four feet long.
The color of the hood’s lining reveals the wearer’s area of study. At Yale, these are:
Liberal Arts (B.A., M.A.) — white
Science (B.S., M.S.) — gold-yellow
Architecture — violet blue
Art and Drama — brown
Divinity — scarlet
Forestry — russet
Law — purple
Management — sapphire blue
Medicine — green
Music — pink
Nursing — apricot
Public Health — salmon pink
Engineering — orange
The color for Doctor of Philosophy and Master of Philosophy degrees, regardless of department, is dark blue.
All graduating Yale students, regardless of their degrees, wear black mortarboards. The tassels may be black or the color of the student’s degree, while those earning doctorates can wear tassels of gold thread or gold metal.
Some graduate and professional students like to personalize their headgear with symbols of their chosen field: greenery for the School of Forestry & Environmental Sciences; halos for the Divinity School; miniature structures for the School of Architecture; and medical paraphernalia for the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health, for example.
It is the tradition at some institutions for graduating students to wear the tassel on the right at the start of Commencement ceremonies, and then switch it to the left after receiving their degrees. Yale policy, however, calls for it to remain firmly on the left “in use.”
The non-graduating members of the Commencement procession can provide a colorful contrast to the black-clad graduates. University alumni can wear “Yale blue” gowns with the appropriate hood, while graduates of other universities can sport robes reflecting the colors and traditions of their particular alma maters.
Headwear among the non-students varies, with some choosing to remain bare-headed, others donning mortarboards, and still others (Ph.D. holders primarily) sporting “beefeaters” — i.e., six- to eight-sided velvet tams, also known as “Tudor bonnets.”
How to don your academic finery: A primer
• Your robe may have covered zippers, hooks, or buttons; fasten them all securely.
• If you’re wearing a hood, roll the edge outward so that the inside colors show. The end of the hood should look something like a fin.
• Adjust the gown so it is sitting comfortably on your shoulders. It should fall below your knee, but not so low that it is a tripping hazard.
• Fasten your tassel to the button on the top of the mortarboard.
• Place the cap on your head so that the point is in the middle of your forehead.
• Adjust the mortarboard so that it is parallel to the ground.
• Place the tassel to the left.
• Prepare to march into the future!