Commencement Traditions

Female graduate crosses the stage at Commencement.Academic Regalia

The history of academic costume and ceremony dates from 12th and 13th century Europe and the medieval universities of Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge.  Originally, the university was an association of “masters of arts” and the degree was the step taken to become a full member.  The new master was admitted to begin teaching; the word “Commencement” described that rite of passage.

The most common articles of daily attire then were long flowing gowns and cloaks, with hoods attached for headwear; subsequently, hats became prominent.  In England, details of scholars’ apparel and occasions for use were strictly prescribed by university statutes.

The origin of the Oxford “mortarboard” cap is a mystery.  It may well have evolved from forcing the rather square-shaped, outdoor biretta over the close-fitting, indoor skull cap commonly worn by university scholars in medieval times.

American Academic regalia is an inheritance primarily from Britain.  The 1895 Intercollegiate Code provides the fundamental regulation.  Gowns for all three degree levels are basic black and similar in shape, although sleeve patterns differ.  Doctoral gowns are faced with velvet, with three bars per sleeve.  The black mortarboard cap is common to all degrees.

The Hood is the most distinctive feature of academic dress.  The color and style distinguish degree level, college or university, and discipline, although proliferation of fields and institutions does not always allow easy identification.  Hoods are all black, and they become longer and wider with more advanced degrees.  All are lined inside with silk in the academic colors of the institution that conferred the degree.

The outer velvet trim on the hood, which becomes broader with the higher degrees, indicates the academic discipline.  The white border for arts and letters emanates from the fur trim of the Oxford and Cambridge bachelor of arts degree.  Red is the traditional color of the Church, and scarlet indicates theology.  The royal purple of King’s Court signifies the law.  Green, the color of medicinal herbs, stands for medicine.  Golden yellow indicates science, for through research untold wealth has been given to the world.  Oxford pink indicates music.  Russet brown for forestry is a tribute to the old-time dress of English foresters.  Blue, the color of wisdom and truth, represents philosophy and is used on the trim for most academics who hold the doctor of philosophy degree, regardless of which discipline they studied in the arts and sciences.

The Mace

During the Middle Ages, the mace was carried into battle by churchmen who were forbidden by church law to bear edged weapons.  The mace was later carried before the king by his bodyguard and eventually became the symbol of authority.  A mace is now commonly used by governments and by institutions of higher learning in ceremonial processions.

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