Exponent Explains: Graduation rituals

Graduation is just a short week off; seniors will soon be marching across the stage in voluminous gowns, square caps and colored tassels to receive their diplomas. This event marks the end of these students MSU careers, sending them off to new (and hopefully better) futures. While graduation ceremony is an important event, why is it characterized by all the costume and ritual which currently surround commencement?


The gowns

An ancient tradition, the academic gowns began almost as soon as universities were founded in the 12th and 13th centuries. The long, flowing robes were likely modelled after priest’s garb although others argue that the gowns were a practical measure, to keep academics warm in poorly-heated medieval buildings. Up until the American Civil War, many university students were required to where the “college habit” at most times. Today, however, the outfits are only worn for academic events, like commencement.


In 1895, an Intercollegiate Commission adopted a code, prescribing the style and cut of academic gowns. Then in 1932 the American Council on Education (ACE) authorized a committee “to determine whether revision and completion of the academic code … in 1895 is desirable at this time.” The committee revised the code which has since been revised by a Committee on Academic Costumes and Ceremonies appointed by the ACE.


While undergraduate students only wear a robe, doctoral students and faculty robes also come with hoods, signifying their further achievements. Additionally, doctoral robes have three velvet stripes on the arms and two velvet stripes down the front.


The mortar boards

The square hats perched upon graduates’ heads were likely based off the biretta, an Italian cap with four stiff corners worn by Catholic cardinals in the 1300s. While the academic tradition of wearing such caps began much earlier, the term mortar board was coined in the 1850s. When not referring to the hat, it describes a board, usually square, used by masons to hold mortar.


Along with the caps comes the tradition of tossing them into the air after graduation. It began at the United States in Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1912. This was the first year commissioned officers were given officer hats, so the newly-commisioned officers tossed their old midshipmen’s caps in the air. The ritual stuck and was passed onto other universities, although in recent years certain schools have banned tossing the caps due to safety concerns.


The tassels

The mortar boards also sport tassels which have their own unique purpose and ritual. The regalia come in a variety of colors, specific to each university. However, at MSU graduates will either wear a black, blue or gold tassel. The gold tassels are for those with a GPA of 3.7 or above while blue tassels are donned by students with a GPA between 3.25 and 3.7.  All other graduates wear a black tassel.


“Turning the tassel” is a key part of the commencement ceremony, signifying one’s transition from candidate to graduate. Undergraduate and doctoral students move their tassel from right to left while masters students generally move their tassel from left to right.


Other adornments

As if tassels, caps and gowns were not enough, graduates may also wear medallions, cords or stoles. At MSU, students who meet the requirements for a degree through the Honors College wear a medallion bearing the seal of the State of Montana. Cords are given out for departmental honors with each department providing a specific color cord. Stoles are piece of fabric several inches-wide, hung around the neck which various organizations on campus have the option to wear. Students wearing stoles at MSU’s May 3 graduation will likely include fraternity and sorority members and McNair Scholars program graduates, in addition to others.
So next Saturday, as you march across the stage or cheer in the audience, remember the unique traditions and purposes of the rituals of the commencement ceremony, in addition to enjoying the day. Good luck and congratulations, graduates!