Each formal occasion has its own rules and conventions to follow and a graduation ceremony is no exception. The graduation traditions that we follow now were started since the middle ages.
The tradition of graduations started in the 12th and 13th centuries, when universities were taking shape. They didn’t have central heating then. Most classes were conducted in a church or nearby buildings. Historians suggest that universities were started by clerics themselves. Back in those days any scholar be it be a student or a teacher wore the dress of a cleric. There were very few exceptions. A medieval scholar normally would belong to at least some orders, made certain vows and may have been tonsured – so they wear long gowns with hoods to cover their bald heads. That got replaced only by the skull cap.
It wasn’t until 1321 that a statue of University of Coimbra that all “Doctors, Licentiates, and Bachelors” wear gowns. By the second half of the 14th century in England there were statues of a couple of colleges that restricted ‘excess in apparel’ and decreed that the long gown be worn. In the late 15th and 16th centuries under the reign of Henry VIII, Oxford and Cambridge Universities started decreeing a definite academic dress. The universities even had control down to the minor details of clothing.
Later on, the graduation gown color was standardized largely because of contributions by Gardner Cotrell Leonard of Albany, New York in the late 19th century. Mr. Leonard designed graduation gowns for his class at Williams College in 1887 – they were made by Cotrell and Leonard – his family firm in Albany. He wrote an article about the academic dress in 1893 which got him invited to work with Intercollegiate Commission and led to having a standardized system of academic attire. This Commission met at Columbia University in 1895 and adopted the code for academic dress. They not only regulated the cut and style and materials of the graduation gowns, they also assigned the colors to each of the various academic disciplines.
That’s how the traditions of graduation gowns got started. But what are YOU supposed to wear to your graduation ceremony apart from the graduation gown? The first thing to do is to check with your school or college for specific rules. A lot of colleges would already have rules and guide lines for the graduation or commencement ceremony.
Remember that your graduation would most likely fall between May and June so think light clothing. You can’t get rid of the graduation gown but you can wear light and airy fabrics like cotton and linen.
Ladies should wear something easy and elegant like a simple dress or a skirt and blouse. If your graduation gown is white or yellow, make sure you wear a light color underneath – not only will it be cooler the outline won’t show up in your graduation pictures!
The gentlemen might need to wear a tie depending on school customs. Even if your school is not forcing you to wear it, get one anyway – it just looks nice and formal. You can get a rep tie or a foulard and wear with with a neatly pressed shirt in white, blue or any other pale color. Either a spread collar or button down are fine. As far as the pants go, wear a neatly pressed casual khaki or olive drab trousers – dress trousers are not a necessity.
Your graduation shoes should be moderately dressy, either flats or pumps are fine but nothing that you’d go into the mosh pit to. Gentlemen graduates should wear either a loafer or dress shoe. At any time, please do not wear jeans or shorts, flip-flops, sandals, tennis shoes or bunny slippers – keep them in your bed room or dorm.
At your graduation ceremony do not affix a message out of masking tape letters to the top of the mortarboard or the back of the gowns. Now that you know the history of your gown and what you’re supposed to wear, the only thing left is to enjoy your graduation because it is something that you’ve earned.
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