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Caps and Gowns

Author John Cech
Air Date 6/8/2007

Caps and Gowns Transcript

This month, you may well find yourself in the audience, watching a young person you know making that walk across the stage to receive a diploma — from college, high school, middle school, and even kindergarten. Your young scholar will most probably be wearing traditional academic regalia — a mortar board and long gown. And you may find yourself wondering, between the chords of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the speeches, and that reading of the names of the graduates, where all this finery came from. It’s one of the few times in our society today that we see all of our young people — or anyone for that matter — dressed the same way.

The cap and gown have their beginnings in medieval universities, especially at Oxford, where since the 12th century, the monks and other clergy who taught at the university wore a uniform long robe called a cappa clausa — mostly to keep themselves warm in the cold and drafty university buildings. Often the gown was worn with a hood, which could be folded back in warmer weather, and left trailing down the back. The hoods were originally called tippets and were worn by wandering monks. Some of these hoods had pockets where the friar could keep his few possessions and where donations could be placed. Over the years, the gowns became a secular form of dress and were often trimmed out with fur or colorful materials, as a symbol of the wealth of the wearer — until, around the time of Henry VIII, when the universities began to impose a standardized dress code that kept showing off to a minimum.

The now familiar but nevertheless strange headgear that our young gradutes wear began as a simple cloth monk’s skull cap. It later morphed into what was called a tudor bonnet, with a flat brim, a soft top, and tassels — which were, even then, used to indicate by their color, your university. At Oxford, the skull cap grew into a four-cornered floppy hat called a pileus. It soon grew so large that its four corners were reinforced with a thin board to keep it from falling into the eyes of the wearer. Somehow the skull cap and the pileus with the board got fused into what we today call the mortar board — or, at Oxford, the trencher. A tudor tassel completes the regalia.

But the innovations keep happening, as this medieval monk’s garb meets Madison Avenue and MTV. At graduation exercises today, creative scholars often turn the ancient mortar board into a message board, the tassel into a drapery pull. The hoods may have disappeared, except for advanced degrees, but that doesn’t mean that our young scholars are pocket-less. They have lots of them, with zippers, velcro, and snaps — ready (as we were) for any and all donations.

Posted in Culture, Education