What’s with the mortarboard hats?
History has left us with two explanations behind the odd, yet familiar, flat-top hats we see at Commencement. The first tells of a Roman law under which freed slaves were designated by wearing a cap as a sign of their independence. The second cites a Greek myth of a teacher who placed mortarboards atop his students’ heads because “their destiny is to build. Some will build cities, some will build lives, and perhaps one of them will build an empire. But all will be builders with the same foundation of knowledge.” Both myths associate this hat with new beginnings, exciting opportunities, and freedom from a world of term papers and long nights in the quiet levels of Milton S. Eisenhower Library.

Tassels: On the left, or the right?
Tassels are worn on the right side before candidates receive their degrees and moved to the left afterward.

The tradition of wearing tassels derives from the days when students were responsible for daily mending of their everyday hoods using the color of thread representing their faculties. Although the tradition of the needle and thread has been lost, the idea of a color symbolizing one’s faculty has remained. Some colors you may see in our ceremony include:

Medicine: Green
Education: Light blue
Music: Pink
Business: Drab
Philosophy: Dark Blue
Science: Golden Yellow
Nursing: Apricot
Arts, Letters, Humanities: White
Engineering: Orange
Economics: Copper
Public Health: Salmon Pink
Public Administration: Peacock Blue

Getting In Your Gowns
From the 12th century until 1600, commencement gowns were worn every day by scholars, complete with adornments based on wealth and rank (silk, velvet, furs). The three main degree types – bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD – determine the design as follows:

  • Modern bachelor’s gowns are traditionally black, fall above the ankle, and have long, straight-bottomed sleeves.
  • Master’s gowns are known for their distinctive sleeves, the backside of which dangles to the wearer’s knees.
  • Ph.D. gowns have distinctive bell-shaped sleeves. The gown has a front facing of velvet and three bars of velvet across the sleeves.

Hold On to Your hoods
Although their original purpose, to keep monks’ heads warm in the 15th century, has since become obsolete, the hoods have nevertheless remained a nostalgic accoutrement to the Commencement ensemble. The hood lengths, like the gowns, vary based on degree level: Bachelor’s, 3 feet; Master’s, 3½ feet; Ph.D., 4 feet. Luckily, these hoods are no longer made of animal fur as they once were—imagine that during a Baltimore summer!

And remember just how lucky you are. In the colonial period, faculties at some American colleges had to wear these gowns and caps to class each day!

Last updated February 6, 2024