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 Age-Old Traditions

A Brief History of the Cap and Gown: Why Am I Wearing That?

If you are graduating this spring and participating in the ceremony at the DECC (noon, Saturday, May 15 for undergraduates) or Romano Gym (7:00 pm, Thursday, May 13 for graduate students), then you know you will be wearing a cap and gown. But you may not know why, or what those colored tassels and hoods signify.

UMD Undergraduates
UMD undergraduates at commencement.
Nine Centuries in the Making
Incredibly, those black gowns worn at UMD commencement have their roots in 12th century dress. In early medieval universities, when higher education was closely linked to religious orders, professors and students wore the garb of clerics. Black robas (gowns) and cappa clausas (similar to long capes) were worn on a daily basis. Also a cowl or hood was worn for warmth in unheated buildings and as protection from inclement weather.

Overtime, education became less associated with religious life. However, wearing daily “college habit” continued for centuries and was adopted in Colonial times in America. After the Civil War, the practice became a thing of the past in the U.S. Increasingly the cap and gown were only brought out at graduation as symbols of achievement and recognition. Hoods were no longer needed for warmth but became decorative communicators of ones academic discipline.

What Your Tassel Says About You
The square academic cap that you and all your friends will be wearing at commencement was originally called a trencher, which was a term used in the 14th century for a wooden platter used for serving food. Today the cap is commonly called a mortarboard. That term originated in the mid-nineteenth century because the cap resembled the square board with a handle used by bricklayers to hold their mortar. The cap is traditionally black but the tassel comes in a myriad of colors, each designed to tell you the degree that the graduate has earned.

At the UMD undergraduate commencement, you’ll see students wearing silk tassels in light blue, brown, citron, copper, drab, gold, grey, orange, peacock, pink, purple, sage, and white. Click here for a degree/tassel color list. The origin of these colors is centuries old, and, in the U.S., have been standardized and accepted by the American Council on Education (ACE). At UMD, you may also see decorative maroon and gold tassels as well as rainbow colored tassels.

Grad being hooded
UMD graduate student "being hooded" at commencement.

A black tassel is worn for all graduate (master's) degrees. At UMD, graduate students receive their hoods at the graduation ceremony, a moment usually referred to as “being hooded.” However, at other universities, the hood may be fastened in place prior to the opening procession. All hoods are black and lined in the color that denotes the degree earned. At UMD, those colors are light blue, brown, citron, drab, gold, light grey, mint green, orange, pink, purple, and white. Students graduating with a Ph.D. receive a royal blue hood, regardless of their field of study.

At commencement, the students aren't the only ones wearing black gowns. Faculty and administrators will be wearing them as well. The gowns of faculty and administrators who have earned their doctorates are distinguished by a facing of velvet running down the front of the gown as well as three bars of velvet on the sleeves. This velvet may be black or in the color of their chosen discipline. The ACE code specifies that only one hood may be worn at a time. Usually the hood worn denotes the highest degree attained. Some faculty and administrators may not wear mortarboards, but rather Tudor bonnets or tams which, of course, harkens back to the time of Henry VIII. Gold metallic tassels may be worn by faculty and administrators who have earned their doctorate. Some faculty and administrators may also wear cords, sashes, stoles, medals, or medallions, signifying special honors.

On graduation day, wear your cap and gown proudly. They are outward symbols of all that you have attained and achieved. You’ve earned that tassel. You’ve worked hard for that hood. Congratulations.

If nothing else, seeing you all dressed up like that will make your family very, very happy.

For more commencement information, visit

Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann,

UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830

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Last modified on 04/22/11 02:34 PM
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