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The History of the Cap and Gown in Higher Education


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Higher education is changing and increasing in popularity year on year. Newly available subjects and the option to study online courses highlight the influence of the modern and fast-advancing world on university life, yet certain traditions still remain. Wearing a cap and gown on graduation day is still standard for all graduates whether they have studied from home or just completed a BA in Pet Name Studies. But why do we wear the cap and gown? And how has it changed?

In Britain and the United States, the style of the contemporary cap and gown is influenced by the dress of Oxford and Cambridge students, and the robes worn by clerics beforehand. Through history, the colour of undergraduate's robes would reflect their rank, much in the same way that today the gown's yoke might be of a colour to identify the subject area of study. Noblemen would wear gowns with gold lace and button decorations whilst lower ranking students, such as commoners, would wear far more simple robes. The sleeves of the gown may vary today, with bell-shaped sleeves for BA students, and closed sleeves for MA students.

Through the 15th and 16th centuries the hood began to be seen less in ordinary dress, but was instead re-appropriated into the conservative wear of universities and other institutions. The hood went through a phase of modification, being oversized for a period, and then being given the additional liripipe which might well have been used to strap under the chin to keep the headpiece secure. Today, the colour and design of hood may vary from institution to institution and achievement to achievement.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of graduation-wear is the mortarboard (or Trencher Cap). The design of this intriguing accessory is derived from the square biretta worn by the clergy in medieval times. Over the centuries, Academia became gradually less connected with the church and subsequently the headwear worn by both sectors changed unlike one other. Although the church kept the biretta, it was the square style that survived in the universities and institutions. Nowadays, the mortarboard varies typically from a simple black cap with black tassels for undergraduates and sometimes gold tassels (or other colours) for university officials. Instead, doctors might also wear a tam, a soft rounded hat.

It is indisputable that how and what we study during higher education is changing, improving, and becoming more accessible. Despite this, the tradition of the cap and gown has its roots firmly in the birth of university education, and the very notion of graduation becomes even more special and thought-provoking when you acknowledge the amount of history there is behind it. And to think, all this comes to light just by wearing a robe and a stupid hat.

Sarah Maple writes about adult education and education online


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