Decoding graduation caps and gowns

UCLA video reveals the meaning and mystery behind graduation attire

It's not a masquerade ball. It's not a black mass. And it's not Halloween. But sometimes commencement season can seem a little bit like them all.
 
Each year in late spring, students and faculty around the world prepare to take part in a tradition more than 800 years old, donning traditional caps and gowns — ritual items born at Europe's earliest universities.
 
But what's the meaning behind the get-up, the variety, the peculiar symbols? Is there a message in all these fabrics and colors?
 
According to UCLA's Brian Copenhaver, an expert on the subject of academic regalia, there is. And the best place to start looking, he says, is the graduation hood.
 
"The academic hood tells the person who looks at it which degree you have," says Copenhaver, director of UCLA's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. "For the undergraduate degree, there is no hood at all. Then there's a sort of small hood for the master's degree. And for the Ph.D., there is a big, very colorful hood.
 
"That hood has colors on it in two different places. On one side of the hood there are patches of velvet, and on the other side there are large patches of silk. The silk patches are the colors of the institution that gave the degree. So in the case of UCLA, they would be blue and gold. The other patch, the velvet part, tells you what kind of degree it is. In the case of many people who are faculty at UCLA, that degree is called 'doctor of philosophy,' and the velvet patch is dark blue."
 
Traditionally black, the graduation gown has been subject to colorful makeovers in recent years, and many universities are now using the robes as an opportunity to show school spirit.
 
"If you went back to around World War II, I think that pretty much all the academic robes you would see would be black," Copenhaver says. "And then, some universities started to make fashion statements. All that color in the robes is a phenomenon really of the last 25 years. Before that, it was really pretty drab."
 
As for the graduation cap, also known as a mortarboard, it's one of the more diverse aspects of the graduation ensemble. Yet despite so many existing varieties, the differences are much more a matter of fashion than meaning and are generally a decision left up to the individual institution or graduate.
 
And what about the tradition of turning the tassel from right to left? Well according to UCLA's Henry A. Kelly, this is another recent addition.
 
"It is probably based on this silly pun about leaving college: You have left college," says Kelly, mimicking the turn of the tassel with his hand. "That's the basis of it, and it probably goes back no further than that. It's probably no more then 40 or 50 years old."
 
It might not be eight centuries old, but Kelly, at least, is in support of this new tassel-turning tradition.
 
"I think it's hilarious and it should be continued. I'm left-handed myself, and I've always really resented people who resent the left hand," he says with a chuckle. I've always been proud of being a left-hander. I actually think that I am superior to the right-handed people by the very fact that I am left-handed. And anything that will come along and praise and privilege the left, I'm in favor of."
 
OK, let's review. Undergrads wear your basic cap and gown. Depending on your university, this outfit could come in a variety of colors, but it will most likely be the standard black. For a master's degree, it's not going to be much different, except for the possible addition of a small, colored hood worn on the back of the gown.
 
And the Ph.D.? Well you're looking at that nice hood all the faculty sport at graduation. The silk portion will display the institutions colors, and the velvet represents the degree being received —blue for philosophy, green for medicine and purple for law.
 
And what about all that extra stuff, like ropes, gold chains and lampshades? Well, you might have to be given an honorary degree, be a chancellor or just go to a university with a unique taste in style.
 
So there's the quick primer. But don't be surprised if you spot something you've never seen before, because when it comes to these outfits, this is one tradition that is definitely evolving.

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