Commencement History


The annual commencement ceremony is the high point of a university’s academic year. The commencement ceremony is the recognition of a student’s success.

The first organized institutions of learning began in the 12th and 13th centuries. Commencement ceremonies with academic gowns, mortarboards, tassels, and hoods are colorful traditions that have been handed down from European universities. The first commencement in the US was held at Harvard University in 1642.


Dating back to the 13th century at European universities, caps and gowns have been an integral part of the commencement ceremony. The traditional dress of the scholar, whether student or teacher, was the dress of a clergy. In 1885 a trend swept the country and students began wearing regalia to symbolize membership to the academy. This movement was the foundation for universities to meet and discuss a common code of academic dress. From this meeting the Intercollegiate Bureau of Academic Costume was born. This group served as a source of information and to guide all academic concerns for dress. The standards created by the group are still used as a guide today.

At commencement ceremonies students, faculty, and members of the platform party wear academic attire. The gown is commonly black, but there are variations with different colors and velvet borders. Bachelor students wear gowns with a pointed sleeve, Master students wear a long gown with closed sleeves with slits for arms and a narrow hood, and Doctoral students wear a long gown with bell shaped sleeves and a wide hood.

Historically hoods were worn by scholars to shield them from the elements of the weather. Later the hood was adopted as regalia for Master and Doctoral level students, along with faculty and staff. The hood has a velvet border which symbolizes the field of study and a silk lining that represents the school colors. The hood should be 3.5 feet in length for the master's degree and 4 feet in length for the doctoral degree.

The cap more formally known as a mortarboard is worn by scholars at commencement ceremony. In the 16th century square hats were called birettas and had a mortarboard appearance. Birettas were made popular on the campus of Oxford University. Many believe the hat has remained square throughout time to represent the mortarboard of a master workman. Another theory states the shape resembles a book and gives the wearer a scholarly appearance. Although not required, most faculty members who have doctorates purchase the doctoral tam, in place of a mortarboard, to differentiate themselves from their students and colleagues without doctoral degrees.

The tassel color also represents the field of study, but may also reflect the school colors. Bachelor degree candidates wear the tassel on the right side of the mortarboard. During the ceremony Bachelor candidates will switch the tassel from the right to the left side. Graduate level candidates do not shift the tassel; it is worn on the left side.

Honor cords are worn to symbolize affiliation with an honor society and/or to indicate a candidate’s grade point average.

A Stole is a part of regalia that some candidates wear to symbolize heritage, membership in various organizations or to signify academic achievement.


Cynthia Rossano, “Reading the Regalia: A Guide to Deciphering the Academic Dresscode,” Harvard Magazine, Spring 2005, 16, January 2008,

History and Tradition,” 15 February 2012,

History of Graduation,” 27 May 2011,