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Cap, Gown, and Tassels: History behind the pomp and circumstance

(Posted May 15, 2014)

Dr. Belle Tuten, professor of history

As graduation grows near, Juniata seniors receive their caps, gowns, and tassels. Belle Tuten, professor of history, talks to us this week about why were these items are traditional graduation attire.

Q: What is the history behind the cap and gown?

A: Originally, universities were church institutions. All the professors were professional clergymen, and the students were in orders. This did not make the students monks or anything like that, but they were still considered members of the clergy. And clergymen dressed in robes.

Q: Do we still have people who dress in gowns at universities today?

A: The habits of wearing distinctive clothing for academia has never truly went away. Here in the United States, we have departed from that except for ceremonial occasions. However, there are still universities in England that still wear robes to class. These are normally older universities and they still practice those traditional customs.

Q: When do we wear gowns at Juniata?

A: We wear gowns twice a year at Juniata. We wear them at baccalaureate and graduation. The students at Juniata are presented with a plain black gown or the bachelor's gown.

Q: How to gowns of professor differ from those of students?

A: The higher the degree, the fancier your gown tends to be. Juniata students will be presented with a hood. A professor's hood will be longer than a student who has just received a bachelor's degree. Around the inside of the hood, you will traditional find your school's colors. A professor who has a master's or a doctoral degree will also have bands on it. These bands are different colors and represent your degree. Some institutions have specific colors of gowns.

Q: Why is there a cap?

A: The cap is based off of a hat that men would have worn in the early modern times. Since almost everyone wore a hat in those times (and most of the people graduating were men) it was also adopted in the graduation ceremony.

Q: Why do we still wear gowns at graduation?

A: I believe that we still wear gowns because they are colorful and it makes the event more traditional. People like to see the different gowns, the caps, the tassels. It is what they expect to see when they go to a graduation. They enjoy the pageantry of the event and the ceremony of a uniformed custom.

Marlene Matula '17, Juniata Online Journalist

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