Why we wear caps and gowns at graduation

The caps and gowns we wear at commencement—even under a withering sun—have a long and interesting history, Valerie Strauss writes for the Washington Post.

The tradition of wearing caps and gowns dates back to 12th century Europe, during the founding of the very first universities. They were originally worn by clergy to stay warm and distinguish themselves from everyone else, says Strauss. Later, scholars started wearing them, too.

England started to institutionalize the tradition during the second half of the 14th century. A few universities would make students wear a long gown and prohibited "excess in apparel." The University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge started requiring students to wear a particular academic dress and enforced every minor detail of it, says Strauss.

During the 18th century, America's first universities, which are today's Ivy League, started mandating academic dress. For example, after American colonies gained independence, Brown University started having its graduates wear robes and capes during commencement, Strauss writes. After a brief decline in the use of academic dress because of a post-independence disdain for all things British, there was a push by students to create a standard academic dress for all schools.

Soon academic regalia would take on a deeper meaning. Students who were very wealthy were forced to wear the same academic dress as poor students during commencement, which signified that they were equal, Strauss writes. Eventually, the American Council on Education further standardized academic regalia, making several revisions, like one in 1986 that said candidates for the doctor of philosophy degree (PhD) should be dressed in dark blue.

Today, academic regalia differ from university to university, but recommendations from the American Council on Education are still in place. There is a vast array of choices, from gowns made entirely out of plastic to designer gowns and hoods (Strauss, Washington Post, 5/20).

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