History of Graduation Caps and Gowns

March 1, 2023 Off By Mark Cronan

Origin information on graduation gowns, colleges and universities, and degrees.

We’ve received numerous requests for information on cap and gown history, past use of caps and gowns, history of academic regalia and academic dress, and related subjects concerning a college and university timeline, graduation robes and gowns, degrees, and the hood, cowl, tam, and mortarboard.

A complete account of the origin and background history of the graduation gown would fill a book. These articles, listed on the left menu, offer a chronicle of the record of events concerning costumes and dress used in religious and educational / school institutions for graduation gowns, and the evolution of the cap and gown. We also cover some chronology of events surrounding the history of those educational institutions and university degree origin issues.

Before delving into the past, it’s useful to know where we are now with graduation robes. The modern graduation gown employs a different robe, gown, hood, tam, mortarboard, cap, and cowl for different individuals and groups within the school or religious institution.

Robe or Gown:¬†The three types of degrees each have a different style gown. Bachelor’s gowns have pointed sleeves, and are worn closed. Master’s gowns have oblong sleeve, open at the wrist, with the base hanging down, and rear part of the oblong cut square while the front arc cuts away. These robes have fasteners so they can be worn open or closed. Doctoral gowns have bell-shaped sleeves, also designed with fasteners so it is worn closed or opened. For the doctor’s robes also have trimmings including velvet panels down the front and three bars of velvet on the sleeves. All three gowns are usually black, though some colleges and universities use the color of the school.

Hood: Academic Hoods are black, made from the same fabric as the gown. They vary in length depending on the degree from three feet to four feet, and the doctoral hood is wider. Lined with college or university colors, they typically have one field color and one chevron color, though sometimes there are school specific variations. The edge of hoods are velvet in the color of the degree subject (see side link).

Cowl: Cowls are typically made from velveteen rather than velvet, and are used for Associate Degrees. They do not display a degree or discipline color, just the institutional colors on the lining. The outside is generally black.

Tam: Tams are typically used for Doctoral degrees, though some Master’s programs do use them. Tams are made from velvet, and usually have a ribbon over the fabric, and in black. Color variations do occur with some colleges. The number of sides vary, and can be four, six, or eight sided. eight, six, or four sides. Four sided is usually only used for Master’s degrees, while six and eight sided are used for Doctor’s degrees depending on which the University prefers. Tams are “poofed” at the top instead of flat, and come with a tassel usually in gold, with one or two buttons and sometimes in a gold bullion color.

Mortarboard or Cap:¬†Mortarboards are flat rather than “poofy” at the top, are not made from velvet, and are also usually black but come in a variety of colors and variations are more frequent than with tams. Mortarboards have only four sides, and typically have a tassel with a single button at the top, usually in the color of the degree-granting institution.

Now that we know what general topics are covered, please click on the topic you are interested in, in the upper left corner menu.