From the first strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” until the tossing of the mortarboards, graduation ceremonies involve a mash-up of traditions, some going back hundreds of years. Academic regalia has evolved through the centuries to reflect the status of both the schools and their latest crop of scholars.
Caps and Gowns
Graduation gowns evolved from the long clerics’ garments worn by medieval scholars as far back as the 12th century, according to the American Council on Education’s guide to academic regalia. One theory maintains that they not only symbolized the scholars’ status but provided a way for them to keep warm in the drafty, unheated buildings where they toiled away at their studies.
Eventually, scholars shifted to more conventional dress, but they continued to bring gowns out on special occasions, such as graduation ceremonies.
In the 19th century, a group of American colleges and universities attempted to standardize their gowns, giving special attention to the sleeves. Their “Intercollegiate Code of Academic Costume,” published in 1895, prescribed pointed long sleeves for bachelor’s degree recipients, long closed sleeves for master’s degrees and round open sleeves for doctor’s degrees. All gowns were to be black, period.
Caps, meanwhile, originated as long hoods (another way for those early scholars to stay toasty) before evolving into skull caps and ultimately into square, flat mortarboards, sometime in the 1700s. Hoods remained part of the costume, but now hung down the wearer’s back rather than sitting atop their heads.
The 1895 code called for caps to be black, as well, adding that, “Each cap shall be ornamented with a long tassel attached to the middle point at the top.” By some accounts, before tassels became standard equipment, mortar boards were often topped by pom-poms.
Another graduation tradition that goes back at least to the Middle Ages is the ceremonial mace, a heavy and elaborately decorated pole typically toted by a high-ranking official, such as a college president or chancellor. Meant as a symbol of the school’s authority, it was inspired by the maces medieval knights used to clobber one another.
‘Pomp and Circumstance’
The instantly recognizable tune, played during the processional march as graduates arrive to collect their degrees, was composed in 1901 and originally performed in 1902 to honor the coronation of King Edward VII of Great Britain.
It made its U.S. graduation debut in 1905, when Yale bestowed an honorary degree on the song’s composer, Edward Elgar—and quickly spread to other schools.
Mortarboard tops decorated with special messages like “Thanks, Mom and Dad!” or “Hire Me!” or even with elaborate sculptures have become a common sight at today’s graduations. While those 1895 rule makers would doubtless be horrified, many universities today encourage the practice and even provide art supplies. As college traditions go, this seems to be a relatively new one. According to Sheila Bock, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who is doing a study on mortarboard decorating, “The earliest examples I have found were in the 1960s and were associated with protests against the Vietnam War.”
Celebrity Commencement Speakers
What would a commencement ceremony be without some uplifting words of wisdom from a celebrated author, Nobel prize-winning scientist or famous talk show host?
Early commencement speeches came from the “commencers” themselves, demonstrations of the oratory and language skills they acquired during their studies. (Etymologists generally believe the word “commencement” as a synonym for graduation refers to the fact that graduates have become prepared to commence their careers.)
Over time, the speech-giving task shifted from students to school bigwigs and then prominent outside dignitaries. Generals and statesmen were once popular choices, often delivering serious speeches on weighty matters. The U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall used his 1947 commencement address at Harvard to unveil what came to be known as the Marshall Plan for rebuilding post-World War II Europe.
Bringing in a broader range of celebrities to address the graduates appears to have originated largely in the 20th century. Schools have been limited only by their imaginations, budgets and willingness to bestow honorary degrees. Recent speakers range from Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson (Boston University, 2023) and actor Tom Hanks (Harvard, 2023) to tennis commentator John McEnroe (Stanford University, 2023) and pop star Taylor Swift (New York University, 2022).
Though colleges have been awarding degrees for centuries, they didn’t start handing out diplomas as evidence of those degrees until much later. The first Harvard diploma, for example, dates to 1813—some 170 years after the college’s initial graduation ceremony. Because early diplomas were often printed on parchment made from animal hide, “sheepskin” became popular slang for one. High school diplomas appear to date back to at least the mid-1800s.
Honorary degrees go back to at least the 15th century in England, according to Oxford University archives. The first prominent U.S. example seems to have been Harvard’s bestowing of an honorary master of arts on Benjamin Franklin in 1753. Franklin later received honorary doctorates in England and Scotland and took to calling himself “Doctor Franklin.” Untold numbers of honorary degrees have been awarded in the years since, some of which were later rescinded due to bad behavior.
Among the more inspired honorary degree titles granted over the decades: ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy ("master of innuendo and snappy comebacks," Northwestern, 1938), Borden mascot Elsie the Cow ("doctor of bovinity," Ohio State, 1948) and Kermit the Frog ("doctor of amphibious letters," the former Southampton College, 1999). Kermit also gave the commencement address.
Tassel Switching From Right to Left
Switching the tassel on the mortarboard from the right side to the left upon graduation had established itself as a tradition by 1909 in the U.S., according to the Intercollegiate Registry of Academic Costume. Even so, not all arbiters of academic style agreed. A 1935 attempt to further standardize the dress code sniffed that, “To move the tassel so that it will hang over the left side of the cap as a feature of the conferment of the Bachelor’s degree has no warrant in precedent or common sense.” The tassel, the new code maintained, “may lie in any direction with equal meaning, since a passing breeze will determine its position at any time.”
Tossing Hats in the Air
The 1935 code fought another losing battle in insisting that graduates keep their caps on “throughout all academic exercises except during prayer. In particular, the cap is not to be removed at any point in the conferment of a degree.”
Decades earlier, the United States Naval Academy’s graduating class of 1912 had already blown that requirement out of the water. Having now earned the right to wear officer hats, the new grads spontaneously tossed their midshipman hats into the air. The Navy’s hat toss soon spread to other colleges, universities and high schools, and even to the British Isles—a rare example of a graduation tradition crossing the Atlantic from the New World to the Old.