Graduation season is upon us! Students are uniformly sporting their caps and gowns and heading to their graduation ceremonies. The cap and gown are a universally recognized symbol of academic achievement and graduation. However, have you ever wondered about the origins of why we wear them? 

For answers, we have to go back to medieval Europe. Universities were established as early as the 12th century. Many of these early universities stemmed from or had ties to religious organizations. In the 13th and 14th centuries, priests and monks often wore long gowns with hoods. Students and teachers would also wear gowns, hoods, and various styles of caps. The gowns were practical and functional, providing warmth and protection in the cold medieval cathedrals and universities. The caps and gowns also helped to distinguish their religious and scholarly status and were worn throughout the year. The outfits were so influential that “town and gown” was a phrase used often to refer to townspeople versus students. In 1321, Oxford and Cambridge were the first schools to require an official graduation attire of long gowns to create a sense of unity.

The cap style changed throughout the centuries. In the 14th century, cylindrical pileus caps were worn and were an academic take on the caps of monks. Then pileus rotundus caps were used to distinguish law, science, and medical students. In the 16th, pileus quadratus caps gained popularity and were standardized by Oxford in the 17th century for higher degrees.  

These traditional caps and gowns continued, even outside of Europe. In the 19th century, the United States’ American Council on Education standardized academic regalia across the country. This regalia is a continuation of traditional styles and academic symbols from the Middle Ages. According to the Council, β€œThe tradition should be departed from as little as possible, not only to preserve the symbolism of pattern and color, but for practicality as well.” This regalia, while usually only worn at graduations now, is standard for universities, colleges, and other forms of higher education. In the 21st century, the tradition gained popularity and expanded to elementary, middle, and high school graduation ceremonies. 

Caps and gowns will be a symbol of academic achievement and graduation for centuries to come. Congratulations to all graduates, past, present, and future!

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