In the name of social distancing, this year’s graduation ceremonies have deviated from the norm. Students of all ages are attending commencements from their couches and accepting virtual diplomas over Zoom meeting screens.
Despite the pandemic, however, one tradition has persisted—the square graduation cap, commonly known as a mortarboard hat. (Related: Why 2020 graduates face a graduation like no other.)
Although the four-cornered, tasseled black cap is now synonymous with academic accomplishments, it hasn’t always been a part of the scholarly tradition. In fact, the iconic brim was once nearly replaced by a squat chef’s hat.
Medieval fashion fights
European scholars have been wearing caps since the first universities were established in the 11th century, but their early caps looked more like Amelia Earhart’s pilot cap than the square caps we know today.
Early academics were often lower-rung members of the Christian clergy. They initially adopted the pileus—a round, brimless skullcap often worn by monks who had piously shaved their heads. By the 14th century, pileus caps were becoming taller and more cylindrical, similar to a modern chef’s hat but shorter. This style, the pileus rotundus, was adopted mainly by university students studying law, medicine, and the sciences.
By the middle of the 16th century, a new cap style made waves in academia: the pileus quadratus, a soft, square cap that required less fabric to make and was quickly adopted by the clergy. Soon the two styles, round vs. square, became symbols of varying prestige. At Oxford University in the 17th century, undergraduates were resigned to the older, rounded caps, while those with higher degrees were allowed to wear pileus quadratus. By 1675, aristocratic undergraduates were given permission to wear the square caps as well.
A young woman from Les Sables D'Olonne, France, wears a towering headpiece with the shapes of roses outlined in white fabric.
The first American colleges were established in the mid 1600s, and their class structures and degree requirements were modeled after English institutions like Oxford and Cambridge University. As graduates of these earliest American institutions established other schools across the young country, European scholarly traditions followed—including ideas of proper academic dress.
Today, American graduates in law, medicine, and philosophy still wear rounded caps, but undergraduates have firmly claimed the square cap—often called a mortarboard since they resemble the square tray bricklayers use when applying mortar.
Old hat, new habits
Although the square hat has a centuries-old legacy, new cap traditions are popping up across the U.S.
Roughly 100 years ago, students began moving their tassel from the right side of their cap to the left after they were conferred. To this day there are no formal rules on where the tassel should be placed, but the act of moving it from one side to the other during commencement has been widely adopted.
Similarly, early American guidelines for graduation ceremonies mandated that caps be worn at all points throughout the commencement—except during prayer. However, in 1912 the graduating class at the U.S. Naval Academy tossed their midshipmen hats after they were given new officer caps during the ceremony. Since then, the tradition of tossing graduation caps has caught on—even for graduates without a handy replacement.
While the ways in which we observe graduation may change, the iconic four-cornered black hat will likely remain a sort of cultural shorthand for academic accomplishment—a symbol of celebration with roots going back to medieval Europe.