Why do grads wear caps and gowns? The meaning behind commencement regalia

Northeastern University held the 2022 College of Engineering Undergraduate Ceremony at Matthews Arena. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

When graduates participate in commencement on Sunday, May 7, everything they wear, from their hoods to their caps to their sleeves, will be rife with symbolism. Regalia tradition dates back over 800 years. In that time, though, some knowledge of its ceremonial significance has been lost.

Luckily, William Fowler, distinguished professor of history, emeritus, at Northeastern, who served as a commencement marshal for 35 years before his retirement in 2017, is still a keeper of that knowledge—where regalia traditions come from, what they mean, and how he saw them change in the three decades he was involved in commencement.

Bill Fowler, distinguished professor of history, emeritus, at Northeastern, served as a commencement marshal for 35 years before his retirement in 2017. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Historically, it all hearkens back to medieval customs. The regalia worn today, Fowler says, “really goes back to the early history of European universities.” The first universities were established in the middle ages by the Catholic Church, and robes were worn for certain functions. “You go back to the 13th or 14th century, priests and monks wore those long gowns that we see, and they often wore hoods,” he says. “That’s where it comes from.”

Back then, the robes and hoods were practical as well as traditional, he says. “They don’t have central heat” in medieval cathedrals, he says. “They were cold.” The thin robes and impractical hoods we wear today are meant to replicate the thicker fabrics that eventually became symbolic over the course of 800 years.

The traditional robes were adopted in the U.S. in the 19th century, Fowler says, when the American Council on Education standardized the regalia guidelines across the country. These guidelines still appear on ACE’s website, which notes that while “it is impossible (and probably undesirable) to lay down enforceable rules with respect to academic regalia”—in other words, there is no graduation police force—”the tradition should be departed from as little as possible, not only to preserve the symbolism of pattern and color, but for practicality as well.”

The rules dictate how components of commencement wear indicate degree and field. Bachelors recipients wear black robes with mortarboards; they can receive hoods, but in many cases universities forego them, and in some cases, the tassel is moved from the right side to the left instead. Masters graduates wear black robes with longer, sickled sleeves that can act as pockets, a three-and-a-half-foot hood, and a mortarboard.

As for those earning a doctorate degree: “The PhD is the most glorious of all; you look like a tropical bird,” Fowler says.

PhD recipients wear robes with velvet running down the front, and rounded sleeves that have three velvet stripes. The hood is four feet long, and while they can wear mortarboards or caps, at Northeastern, doctoral recipients wear six-sided caps.

ACE also regulates hood colors. The hood should be lined with the school color, and the velvet edge, which ranges in thickness depending on the degree, indicates different fields of study: White signifies the arts, purple is law, green is medicine, orange is engineering, and so on. For most universities, if you attend a commencement ceremony, this will be the case, with some variations.

Northeastern has a few of those quirks. For one, the president’s gown is a little different from everyone else’s. “The president wears a gown with four stripes,” Fowler says. “That was done when Jack Curry became president. There was a desire to have the president have a distinctive gown. Up until that time, the president wore the same academic gown that other people wore.” The president also wears a medallion with the university seal, a tradition that predates Fowler.

As far as the students go, their regalia has remained largely the same throughout Northeastern’s history, though a gold cord for academic honors is a relatively new addition.

And then there are the decorations. For Fowler, decorating caps and adorning gowns with unique sashes to represent club membership and honors is the biggest shift in regalia he saw in his time. The decoration actually goes against one of the goals of academic regalia, he says, which is to “make everybody look the same.” In this sense, when students embellish their commencement wear, it’s “a bit of a mini-rebellion.”

Still, Fowler is impressed by it. “The students really are quite inventive,” he says. “It’s fun to see.”

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