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Graduation Cap and Gown Etiquette

History | Why do we wear caps and gowns?


It all started in the often unheated buildings of the middle ages, long gowns were necessary for scholars to ward off the cold.


Academic dress for graduations started in the 12th and 13th centuries when universities first began forming. Whether a student or a teacher, standard dress for scholars was clerical garb. Most medieval scholars had made certain vows, and had at least taken minor orders with the church so clerical robes were their main form of dress to begin with.

In 1321, the University of Columbia mandated that all Doctors, Bachelors, and Licentiates must wear gowns. In the latter half of the 14th century, excess in apparel was forbidden in some colleges and prescribed wearing a long gown. By the time of England's Henry VIII, Oxford and Cambridge began using a standard form of academic dress, which was controlled to the tiniest detail by the university.

Not until the late 1800s were colors assigned to signify certain areas of study, but they were only standardized in the United States. European institutions have always had diversity in their academic dress, but American institutions employ a definite system of dress thanks to Gardner Cotrell Leonard from Albany, New York. After designing gowns for his 1887 class at Williams College, he took an interest in the subject and published an article on academic dress in 1893. Soon after he was asked to work with an Intercollegiate Commission to form a system of academic apparel.

The system Gardner Cotrell Leonard helped form was based on gown cut, style and fabric; as well as designated colors to represent fields of study. For example green was the color of medieval herbs, and was assigned to medical studies. Because olive is close to green, was designated for pharmaceutical studies.

In 1959, the American Council on Education had a Committee on Academic Costumes and Ceremonies review the costume code and make changes. In 1986, the committee changed the code to clarify the use of dark blue for a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Etiquette | How to properly wear a graduation cap and gown:

Men: It is recommended that men wear dark trousers or khakis, dark socks, shoes, and a neatly-pressed, light-colored dress shirt with dark tie underneath an academic gown. Jeans and shorts, sandals and tennis shoes should be avoided. The cap is worn flat on the head. The gown should fall midway between the knee and ankle. Tassels are usually worn on the right side and shifted to the left when graduates receive their diplomas. Men should remove their caps during the school song and the National Anthem.

Women: Women graduates should wear dark slacks, dress, or skirt, and a light-colored dress blouse with dark shoes. High heels are not recommended for reasons of safety and comfort, flats or pumps are suggested. Sandals and tennis shoes should not be worn. The cap is worn flat on the head. The gown should fall midway between the knee and ankle. Tassels are usually worn on the right side and shifted to the left when graduates receive their diplomas. Women are allowed to keep their caps on during the National Anthem.


Graduation Announcements, Invitations and Parties:

Graduation announcements, while not originally viewed as a request for gifts, unfortunately have become associated in recent years with forced gift-giving. Graduation announcements should not be distributed to people other than close friends and family members, unless the notation "No gifts please" has been added. (A rough rule to follow would be this: Send announcements only to those people who already know that you, or your son or daughter is graduating.)

The same thing goes for graduation invitations (which differ from the announcements only in that they include a request for attendance at the ceremony as opposed to merely announcing the impending receipt of the diploma or degree). This is particularly true because many degree-granting institutions impose limits on the number of spectators who actually may attend, and issue tickets to the graduate to be given to those select members of the family or friends who actually are expected to show up at the ceremonies. Think carefully about who to invite to the graduation ceremony; after all, what if they all actually show up and you don't have tickets for them?

Better to invite only immediate family and closest friends (such as godparents) to the ceremony. That means, of course, that you must have at least one fabulous graduation party to which you can invite all of those people who helped you and your family survive the last 2 - 4 - 8 - 12 or 14 years. Whether it is a traditional graduation party such as an open house or a more "organized party" such as a roast for the graduate or a buffet dinner, plan a party theme that reflects what your graduate's plans for the future are.


Oak Hall

Established in 1889, and following the Gardner Cotrell Leonard system, America has seen only the finest Caps & Gowns due to the commitment Oak Hall places into every thread, and every customer.

Today, Oak Hall proudly serves over 1,400 colleges and universities, 6,000 high schools, 12,000 nursery schools and kindergartens, and 2,500 choirs and ministers. Our formula for success is simple, produce a quality product at a fair price and support them with the finest service in the industry.

American Council on Education Website >>