University of Oxford

The History Behind Graduation Day and the Cap and Gown Worn

The graduation ceremony is a cultural tradition that is considered a rite of passage. The ceremony marks a transition from one stage in a student’s life to another. Arnold van Gennep coined the phrase “Rite of passage” in 1909 and he believed the rite of passage included the following three steps:

1. Separation from Society
2. Inculcation-transformation;
3. Return to Society in the new status.

So what is the history behind Graduation Ceremonies, Caps and Gowns?

The “Rite of Passage” Graduation Day

The Baccalaureate Ceremony is considered the beginning of “Rite of passage.” Some schools include the Baccalaureate Ceremony with the actual Graduation Ceremony, while others celebrate the two in separate events altogether. For brevity purposes, I will explain the former.

The graduation commencement ceremonies usually begin with speeches from faculty or special speakers, which may include the actual students and music. Afterwards the graduates names are called one by one as “Pomp and Circumstance” is traditionally played. Not every ceremony follows this tradition.

“Pomp and Circumstance” was composed by Sir Edward Elgar (b. 6/2/1857 d. 2/26/1934). “Pomp and Circumstance” was first performed on October 19, 1901 in Liverpool, England. As the students commence onto the stage they are handed their diplomas and given a handshake. It is at that point the students flip the tassels on their hats.

The Baccalaureate Ceremony origin is said to go back to 1432. The first Baccalaureate Ceremony commenced at Oxford University. At that time each student was required to deliver a sermon in Latin as part of his academic applications. Cap and Gown. What do they mean and where did they come from?

What we call today a “cap,” which is worn by students and faculty in some cases, used to be called a “hood.” The “hood” is believed to be dated back to the Celtic Groups. At that time in history only the Druid priests wore capes with hoods, symbolizing their superiority and higher intelligence. Today, the “hood” or “cap” is used to identify the student’s academic institution and degree. The tassel that is attached (and sometimes the color of the cap and gown or scarf) is used to signify the student’s academic achievement within the academic structure.

Prior to the 1950’s the color of the graduation gown was gray. This was practiced only in the U.S. Colors in European countries were used as far back as the 1800s to signify the area of study. Sometime during the 1950’s students began to ask for cap and gowns that represented their school colors. Their wish was granted and the emergence of varying colors used for gowns caught on.

During the 12th and 13th centuries the academic dress for graduation was born. At that time the standard dress for faculty or students was clerical dress. It wasn’t until 1321 that the University of Coimbra decided that all Doctors, Bachelors, and Licentiates would be required to wear gowns.

So there you have the basic history of Graduation Day and the ceremonial garb that is worn. Please remember to stay safe. The number of students who are just beginning their journey into life declines greatly on graduation night. Why? Drinking and Driving are a deadly mix and many graduating seniors and others are killed during the “celebrations.”

Graduation Day

All the dreams that have come and gone;
All the memories that will live on and on.
High School days we thought would last forever;
All the time we thought we’d be together.
Time seemed to slip by and then go away;
Now it’s graduation day.
So many times we laughed and we shared;
So many times we said I love you and I care.
The happiness, the sadness and the fights galore;
All these things were wrapped into one and more.
Time seemed to slip by and then go away;
Now it’s graduation day.
So many times wondering if we’ll remember what we’ve learned;
The credits, the honors and the scholarships we’ve earned.
The trips, the sneak days, cutting a class;
For all these years we thought they’d never pass.
Time seemed to slip by, and then go away;
Now it’s graduation day.
And so my friends I want to dedicate this to you;
For the good times and the sad, yes there’s been a few of those too.
The tears streak down my face, the memories to stay;
Because now my friends, it’s graduation day. Jaci Rae – Copyright

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