Research: The stories behind our graduation traditions

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Press columnist Sholeh Patrick was commencement speaker for University of Idaho - Coeur d'Alene graduation Tuesday night. She's flanked by (left) Dr. Charles Buck, associate vice president and center executive officer, and by UI President Chuck Staben. MIKE PATRICK/Press

As I lined up (feeling rather awkward) in full regalia — complete with Cambridge-style cap and voluminous gown — for University of Idaho’s commencement ceremony in Coeur d’Alene Monday, I couldn’t help but notice the guy behind me.

He was armed.

First used at its centennial commencement, that 32-inch walnut stick encircled with bands of gold, silver, garnets, and opals — all mined in Idaho — is as pretty as it was daunting.

Why was this mild-mannered faculty chair carrying an erstwhile weapon, bejeweled though it was, onto the platform? Was he going to hit me if I screwed up the speech?

“Nah. It’s my job to protect the president,” he joked.

That’s not far off. Apparently, the tradition is centuries-old, like the cap and gown. So in honor of graduation season, here’s a little tradition behind the regalia:

Mace: The ceremonial mace was a symbol of military commanders’ authority, practical weapons intended to protect the king and carried by a serjeant-at-arms, or a royal bodyguard. The word “mace” comes from Middle English, referring to a tool which could break armor.

By the 14th century, maces had become increasingly decorative, encased in precious metals like U of I’s. Most American universities and colleges have a ceremonial mace, used almost exclusively at commencement and carried either by the college’s president or other high official.

Cap: Think bald heads. The cap and gown tradition in academia, say historians, has a religious connection. The earliest schools in 12th century Europe were either tied to or fashioned in the tradition of clerical institutions. Professors were originally clerics or monks, who generally shaved their heads. Hence the need for a cap.

Next we get to style. The traditional mortar board (flat-topped) caps worn by high school and college graduates imitate Oxford University’s tradition. The softer, beret-like version you often see on faculty and official heads follow Cambridge style. Those two British paragons are always competing.

Gown: In the old days of historic brick buildings and drafty hallways, heat was a big problem, especially in damp England. So those full-coverage robes made sense.

Gown styles also differ according to degree level.

Stripes: Notice the velvet stripes on the gowns of faculty members or post-graduate degree earners? Three stripes means a doctoral degree. Bachelors and Masters have no stripes.

Sleeves: Bachelor sleeves are pointed. Master’s sleeves are oblong, with an arc cut away at the front. Doctors have round, bell-shaped sleeves.

Hoods: Not that anyone wears them on heads anymore, but “hoods” refers to those long, colorful draped things which go around the neck and drape down the backs of graduate-level regalia — masters and Ph.D.

Hoods were once worn on the head, superseded by caps, but they’re more than just head warmers. Ancient Celts and Druid priests wore capes with hoods symbolizing higher intelligence and superiority. Over time in academia, hood colors became associated with particular degrees and majors, such as:

White: Arts, letters and humanities

Orange: Engineering

Light blue: Education

Purple: Law

Forestry: Russet

Journalism: Crimson

Science: Yellow (golden). Another yellow (maize) is for agriculture.

Philosophy: Dark blue

Most commencement regalia and traditions derive from medieval Europe. As they were imported here, practice began to vary. So in 1894 and according to Columbia University, the American Intercollegiate Commission met at Columbia to standardize things.

In 1932 and 1959, the American Council on Education, a nonprofit coordinating body for American colleges and universities, revised those standards for academic garb, more closely resembling what we see today. Still, some schools just decide to do their own thing.

However dressed, cheers to 2019’s graduates for all their hard-earned accomplishments. Congratulations!


Sholeh Patrick, J. D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who wishes she could have carried the mace. Contact her at

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