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Grad garb rich in history and tradition

May 02, 2007

Graduation ceremonies are steeped in tradition that date to medieval Europe. They symbolize the beginning of a productive social and professional life, and a life of continued learning. On May 10, thousands of Arizona State University graduates – clad in traditional “mortarboard” caps and gowns – will march across the stage to receive their diplomas.

Scattered among the sea of maroon and gold, will be bright flashes of color on hoods, tassels and cords. For the thousands of friends and family members in the audience, these scenes are just part of the colorful pomp and circumstance of graduation. But when it comes to academic regalia, everything has a significant meaning – and roots extending back 1,000 years.

In 1321, the University of Coimbra mandated that all Doctors, Bachelors, and Licentiates must wear gowns. In the latter half of the 14th century, excess in apparel was forbidden in some colleges and prescribed wearing a long gown. By the time of England's Henry VIII, Oxford and Cambridge began using a standard form of academic dress, which was controlled to the tiniest detail by the university.

Though academic regalia in Europe and other countries remain greatly diverse, American colleges and universities have sustained a common system. In 1932 the American Council on Education published a code on academic costumes that, although updated from time to time, still exists.

The pageantry and symbolism of graduation are typified by the cap, gown and hood, typical attire of the medieval scholar. According to American Universities and Colleges, the modern cap and gown worn by both graduating students and university faculty is reminiscent of 12th century scholars who wore long gowns, in part to keep themselves warm in unheated buildings. Those same scholars shaved the crowns of their heads, making hoods and later skull caps necessary to keep their heads warm.

The caps of baccalaureate degree recipients sport colored tassels, which are indicative of the graduate’s degree program. For example, light blue was assigned to education; drab is the color associated with commerce, accountancy, business; white represents social work; and yellow or gold represents the sciences. Today there are 27 colors recognized for separate undergraduate academic disciplines. Traditionally, the tassel for graduate degrees is black, except for the gold tassel allowed for doctoral degrees.

One of the most visible rituals associated with graduation is the act of moving the cap’s tassel. Candidates for bachelor's degrees wear the tassel on the right side, shifting their tassel to the left after they receive their diploma. Candidates for higher degrees do not shift their tassels; they wear them on the left side from the outset. Some researchers believe that changing the position of the tassel is a custom that has taken the place of hooding, a ceremony reserved for graduates attaining an academic degree beyond a bachelor's degree.

The hood had its origin in the “tippet,” or shoulder covering worn by begging friars in the early Middle Ages. The tippet developed from the simple shoulder covering to also include a cowl and a bag or pocket into which money, alms or other donations could be placed. Both the cowl and the pocket are retained in the various hoods worn today. The academic hood is worn over the graduation gown during commencement ceremonies. The size of the hood – both length and width – is significant in determining whether it is a master’s hood or a doctoral hood. The longer the hood, the higher the degree.

Gold honor cords indicate a student is graduating with honors: summa cum laude (with highest distinction), magna cum laude (with great distinction) or cum laude (with distinction).

The university mace has also become one of the major accessories at commencement ceremonies. Typically three or four feet in length, the mace is made of metal and wood, and includes a grooved head with sharp spikes. Originally used by horsemen and warriors in battle, the mace is now associated with high-level state occasions as a symbol of power, authority and dignity. The university mace is carried before the platform group by the university marshal during graduation processions to signify the dignity and sovereignty of the university.

Throughout their long and proud history, colleges and universities have maintained strong ties to their ceremonial roots. Graduates and faculty alike have gloried in the rich imagery and colorful regalia associated with commencement, one of the most cherished and time-honored rituals in the Western world.