The flowing robes, the grace... striking
The flowing robes, the grace... striking

In our continuing attempt to understand the world around us, today we will talk about the tradition of wearing cap & gowns for graduation ceremonies.

Well, the first thing you need to know is that this dates back nearly 1000 years, and the academy is a notoriously conservative place. In the words of F.M. Conrford, in his advice to young academics, “Nothing should ever be done for the first time.”* The corollary is that once we get started on something, it’s tough getting us to stop.

With that in mind, Slate.com tackles the regalia question for us:

Standard fashion around 1100 and 1200 A.D. dictated long, flowing robes and hoods for warmth; the greater a person’s wealth, the higher the quality of the fabrics. This attire went out of style around the Renaissance. But sumptuary laws, often designed to prevent people from dressing above their class, kept academics (who were relatively low in the social hierarchy) in simple, unostentatious robes through the 16th century. Thereafter, academics and students at many universities wore robes for tradition’s sake. At Oxford, robes were de rigueur until the 1960s and are still required at graduation and during exams.

And, of course, the Americans played along:

When American universities sprang up in the 17th and 18th centuries, they adopted many Oxbridge academic traditions, including robe-wearing…

The use of academic robes in the United States waned at the beginning of the 19th century, and after around 1810, most American colleges and universities used them only at formal academic ceremonies, if at all…. The tradition seemed on the cusp of extinction, but in the second half of the 19th century, there was a—somewhat mysterious—renewed interest in academic regalia.

It’s one thing to ask why we wear them, but entirely another to figure out what to wear. It seems that the students look pretty similar, but the faculty is a mishmash of colors and patterns. That’s why it’s so nice that the American Council on Education provides this handy dandy academic costume guide. From that we learn this:

Tassel. A long tassel is to be fastened to the middle point of the top of the cap only and to lie as it will thereon. The tassel should be black or the color appropriate to the subject, with the exception of the doctor’s cap that may have a tassel of gold.

It’s worth noting that the color for the music discipline is pink, which is the answer to one question I got at dinner tonight about why the Con students have pink tassels and the College students wear black.  Well, it doesn’t answer it completely because many disciplines within the college have their own colors (e.g., economics is copper, science is yellow), so I’m going to go with “transaction costs” for the reason why the College side has black tassels.

The guide also elaborates on the history of regalia generally, and the more you read, the more, um, traditional it really is.

See you on stage.

*Nicked from Louis Menand’s excellent The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American Academy. See also, here.