The height of summer normally means graduation day season. Sadly, this year graduates won’t be able to celebrate all together in the usual fashion. Graduation day ceremonies have largely been cancelled or postponed due to the ongoing disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It means students won’t be donning their caps and gowns to collect their awards and instead will be celebrating with family and friends away from the university.
The distinctive academic dress is arguably the most iconic aspect of graduation day. But what most people don’t know is why students wear caps and gowns to mark this special occasion?
A 900-year-old tradition
The tradition dates all the way back to the 12th and 13th centuries when universities began to form across Europe. Students and teachers often wore clerical clothing because of their strong ties to the church. Many professors were priests, monks or clerics and students were often studying to follow in their footsteps.
Academic dress, as it is now known, was often worn daily and it is thought the long gowns and hoods also helped to keep the students and professors warm in unheated buildings. But it was Oxford and Cambridge which were the first universities to officially introduce graduation dress in the 1300s.
The tradition then spread during the proceeding centuries to colonial North America and throughout the Commonwealth. During that time, the style of the gowns and caps worn by graduates gradually changed.
The distinctive mortar board became commonplace by the 15th century as it evolved from hats, known as a biretta, that were worn by Catholic clerics, scholars and professors.
Unique styles and colours
Today the style and colour of an academic dress vary and in most cases are unique to each institution. There are also minor symbolic differences between what graduates of bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees wear. However, all in all, traditional academic dress has changed very little in more than 900 years.
Hopefully, the iconic gowns and caps will be back to normal for final-year students graduating at the end of the upcoming academic year.
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