As the ceremony for finishing my master's program edges closer, I've become curious about the history of its pageantry and costuming.
For this ceremony, I will need more than a cap and gown, now I will need a white hood. White is the color that denotes my area of study -- in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
The master's robe is different, as well, in the shape of the sleeves. Whereas bachelors' sleeves are pointed, masters' sleeves are very long, with slits for the arms to come through.
I'm also going to need a stole (sash) to indicate that I'm graduating with distinction. I don't know what color yet, but presumably gold. When I was an undergrad, it was a gold honors cord worn around my neck, and for my associate's degree, it was a gold sash.
History of Academic Regalia
These outfits, now worn only at graduation, used to be everyday dress for scholars in 14th century English universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. In those days, scholars were clerics and dressed accordingly.
The custom came to America through King's College in New York. It spread, the colors became standardized in the late 19th century, and little has changed since.
Also called a robe, the gown is usually black and is designed differently for each of the three types of degrees. As I mentioned earlier, the sleeves are different, bachelors' pointed, masters' long with wrist-openings, and doctors' sleeves are bell shaped. Doctors' robes have trimmings including colored panels down the front and three velvet bars on the sleeves. Bachelors wear their robes closed, masters and doctors can wear their open or closed.
The hoods, which are separate from the gown, hang down in the back to reveal their satin lining in school colors and their edges, whose color indicates the scholar's field of study. They are long, three-to-four feet, and their length and width depends on the degree earned.
Caps, Mortarboards and Tassels
We all know what a graduation cap looks like, so rather than describe it, I will tell you its interesting history. Our modern version is a combination of skullcap and mortarboard.
The skullcap remains from the time when clerics wore their hair cut in a tonsure, shaved on top with a ring of hair around the sides. They wore skullcaps to keep their heads warm.
As for the mortarboard, there was a rule in England in 1559 that clerics had to wear square caps to indicate their profession, and from those early square caps evolved our modern mortarboard (so-called because of their resemblance to the boards masons used to hold mortar in place).
Meanwhile, professors at Oxford began wearing, as a mark of dignity, a skullcap with a point at the top, usually made of velvet. This evolved into the velvet beret professors now wear at commencement ceremonies.
On top of those dignified caps was a knob holding a string that was tied at the back of the head to keep it in place, a string that was the forefather of our modern tassel.
Some universities insist on sober clothing worn under graduation regalia, but HSU has a more relaxed policy.
Also, people often decorate the top of their mortarboards to express their individuality or wear sashes that indicate some affiliation. Native American students and African American students, for example, often wear sashes of culturally meaningful colors. Graduates from the nursing program often balance traditional nurses caps on top of their mortarboards.
I have seen no such group affiliation in the English department, but a friend decorated her mortarboard with a linguistically diagrammed sentence.
When I earned my associate's and bachelor's degrees, I decorated my caps with a brooch that had belonged to my grandmother. What will I do this year?
Here is a pic of graduation 2007 with my professor, adviser and dear friend.
Here is another with several of my classmates from the English Department, 2007.
Note: I gleaned much of this information from academicapparel.com which has a good history section with excerpts from academic research articles on the history of academic customs and ceremonies.