The History of the Graduation Cap


The graduation cap is one of the most famous and familiar symbols of graduation. A strange-looking hat, usually square on top with a form-fitting skullcap underneath, the graduation cap has a long history. Although graduation caps of various types have been worn for centuries, the styles, uses and traditions associated with these caps have changed.


  • The most familiar graduation cap is the "mortarboard" style used for high school, undergraduate and masters graduations. Doctoral and some masters graduation caps are technically referred to as "tams" and are usually larger, black velvet caps. These caps do not have the standard square shape of a mortarboard cap.

Time Frame

  • Students at the earliest universities in the Middle Ages were required to wear clothing that distinguished them from the residents of the surrounding town. As most medieval students studied with the intention of entering the clergy, the official student attire of clerical robes, hoods and hats reflected that. American graduation clothing followed the European tradition. Graduation attire was standardized in the U.S. in 1895, after which all graduation attire was either black or grey. Since the 1950s, however, there has been an increasing tendency for graduation attire to reflect the school colors.


  • The graduation cap that has become standard in the U.S. originated at Oxford University in the 16th century. Similar square-shaped caps appeared in 15th-century France and Italy, and descendants of those caps remain in use in continental Europe today. Throughout Europe, the typical graduation caps vary widely by region and relate to the specific history of the universities.


  • There are several traditions associated with graduation caps. The most famous and iconic is the tossing of the cap at the end of the graduation ceremony. This tradition began with graduating cadets at the US Naval Academy in 1912 and is now common at all kinds of graduations. The other major graduation cap tradition is the turning of the tassel. Graduates often move the cap tassel from the right to the left after receiving their diploma or as a group at the end of the ceremony.


  • Most graduation caps have tassels attached to the top. The color of the tassel relates directly to the field and level of study. Standard tassels for undergraduates are black, while PhD tassels are typically gold. Alternatively, the tassel can be a color that indicates the graduate's field of study. Light blue tassels for education graduates, orange tassels for engineers and red tassels for technology graduates are among the colored tassels allowed.

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