Significance of Graduation Regalia


The cap and gown is considered standard dress for graduates at commencement ceremonies. The outfit has an interesting meaning and contains lots of symbolism.

Graduates at all levels of education usually wear caps, tassels, and gowns during commencement ceremonies. While many may think that it is simply a part of tradition, there is an extensive history behind graduation regalia.

History of Graduation Regalia

According to Texas A&M University, the history of the cap and gown dates back over eight hundred years to scholars in Medieval Europe. During that time, everyone wore similar gowns that varied in color and style. As time went on, however, various trades, professions, and religious orders began designing specific robes that members of those groups or organizations wore.

Around this time, students and professors began organizing themselves into guilds, and three distinct groups emerged: the apprentices (bachelor of arts,) the teachers (master of arts,) and teachers who had completed post-graduate work (doctorates.) The style of robes and dress became standardized as a gown with a hood.

Later, various styles of caps with and without tufts were added to the outfit. Today’s mortarboard most resembles the ones worn at Oxford University, with today’s tassel being an extension of the tuft that some academic caps had during this time.

Significance of Graduation Regalia

The graduation dress used in the United States has been in place since colonial times and was standardized by the Intercollegiate Code in 1895. Today’s cap and gown are based off of fourteenth and fifteenth century styles that were particularly popular with students and teachers at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England.

Those who are receiving a bachelor’s degree in any field typically wear black robes with straight, open sleeves. Caps are usually black mortar boards with a colored tassel, with the color of the tassel indicating the graduate’s area of study. Some bachelor’s graduates may wear capes that drape over the shoulders and hang down the back in the school’s colors with the institution’s crest or seal on the piece that comes around the front of the neck.

Those who have earned a master’s degree in any field wear the standard mortar board with colored tassel and black robes. The sleeves of the robe are oblong in shape with open ends, and the cape is worn by all graduates receiving a master’s degree. The color of the lining of the cape indicates the graduate’s area of study and matches the tassel. The colors on the outer half of the cape are the colors of the institution from which the graduate has earned that respective degree.

Doctoral graduates wear robes with velvet stripes on the arms and chest in colors indicating the area of study of the wearer. Instead of the mortar board, those receiving the doctorate degree usually wear a tam with a small golden tassel. Doctors are awarded a cape just like those worn by master’s graduates during the commencement ceremony, and the cape is usually awarded by the graduate’s academic advisor.

Graduation Tassel Colors

There are many different colors of graduation tassels. At the high school level, a graduate’s tassel is often made of a combination of the school’s colors.

At all levels of education above high school, the color of the tassel indicates the graduate’s area of study. According to The Missourian, these colors are universal for almost all colleges and universities in the United States and apply to all levels of higher education. The most common areas of study have very distinct colored tassels:

Arts and humanities – white
Business – tan (may also be called drab brown)
Education – light blue
Engineering – orange
Fine arts – dark brown
Journalism – crimson
Law – purple
Medicine – green
Music – light pink
Nursing – apricot
Sciences – golden yellow
Social Work – citron
Theology – scarlet
Associate’s degree – royal blue

Academic regalia has been worn by graduates and students for hundreds of years, and has had an evolving purpose as the style of dress has changed. All of the elements of the graduation regalia serve to announce a student’s achievements in his or her area of study.