The square graduation cap, an iconic symbol of academic achievement and commencement ceremonies, has long intrigued curious minds. As graduates don their distinctive caps with tassels, the question arises: why are graduation caps square?
Rooted in the medieval traditions of European academia, the cap’s evolution from soft, round birettas to a square shape exemplifies the blend of practicality and symbolism.
In this comprehensive exploration, we will delve into the origins, evolution, and significance of the square graduation cap, shedding light on the reasons behind its enduring prominence.
Why Are Graduation Caps Square?
Graduation day is a momentous occasion in the lives of students worldwide, marking the culmination of years of hard work, dedication, and academic achievement.
But have you ever wondered why graduation caps are square in shape? Is there any historical significance or practical purpose behind this peculiar design?
Let’s explore the mystery of being the graduation caps square:
Historical Origins of the Graduation Cap
The history of the graduation cap dates back centuries and is deeply rooted in academic traditions that emerged in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The early universities of Europe, such as the University of Bologna, the University of Paris, and the University of Oxford, laid the foundation for the academic customs we still observe today.
During the Middle Ages, formal academic gatherings were highly influenced by religious and clerical traditions. Scholars and religious figures commonly wore distinct garments, including the long robes we still see today at graduations.
The concept of academic dress began to develop as a way to distinguish educated individuals and scholars from the general populace.
The Evolution of Academic Attire
Over time, academic attire became more standardized and elaborate, signifying different levels of academic achievement and social status. One of the key components of this attire was the cap, which underwent various transformations.
In the early days, the caps were quite different from the modern graduation cap. They were soft, round skull caps with tassels or ribbons attached to them. The soft cap, known as the biretta, was a common accessory worn by clergy and scholars in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The Square Cap Emerges
The square-shaped graduation cap, as we know it today, gradually evolved from the biretta. The exact transition from the round biretta to the square cap is not precisely documented, but there are some historical theories that provide plausible explanations.
One popular theory suggests that the transition from the round biretta to the square cap occurred around the 16th century. During this period, academic institutions sought to distinguish themselves and solidify their identities.
They began to adopt specific colors and emblems to represent their institutions, which extended to academic attire, including caps.
The square shape of the graduation cap is believed to have been inspired by the shape of books and manuscripts used in early universities. During the Middle Ages, books were handwritten by scribes and often square or rectangular in shape.
The cap’s design may have been an homage to the written knowledge that scholars were acquiring during their studies.
Practicality and Functionality
Apart from historical and symbolic reasons, the square shape of the graduation cap also served practical and functional purposes. The square design made it easier to manufacture and fold, ensuring that the caps were affordable and could be mass-produced for large graduating classes.
Additionally, the square cap provided a flat surface for the tassel to hang down evenly on all sides. The tassel, another iconic element of the graduation cap, also holds significance.
The tradition of moving the tassel from one side to the other during the commencement ceremony symbolizes the transition from candidate to graduate, marking the completion of one’s academic journey.
The Graduation Gown and Hood
The graduation cap is just one part of the complete academic attire worn during commencement ceremonies. The outfit typically includes a gown and a hood, each of which also has its historical roots and symbolic significance.
The gown, with its long, flowing sleeves and traditional black color, is a remnant of medieval clerical garments. Initially, gowns were intended to provide warmth in the often unheated university buildings, and over time, they became formal attire for academic ceremonies.
The academic hood, worn draped over the back and shoulders, is the most colorful and diverse element of the attire. The hoods’ colors and designs signify the wearer’s degree, field of study, and the institution granting the degree.
The hoods’ linings are often adorned with the colors of the institution from which the degree is earned, and the hood’s shape indicates the degree level (e.g., bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate).
Modern-Day Graduation Caps
As academic traditions have continued to evolve, the square graduation cap has remained a steadfast symbol of academic achievement. While the basic design has remained consistent, there have been some variations and modern adaptations.
For instance, some institutions have adopted caps with adjustable elastic bands or stretchable materials to ensure a more comfortable fit for graduates of different head sizes.
Additionally, some schools have incorporated the use of eco-friendly materials in the production of graduation caps, aligning with contemporary concerns for sustainability.
While the square graduation cap is prevalent in many Western countries, various cultures have their unique styles of graduation caps and academic attire.
In some countries, academic caps may differ in color, shape, or size, reflecting cultural norms and historical practices.
For example, in Sweden and Finland, graduation caps are often white and look more like sailor caps, known as “studentmössa” in Swedish. In Japan, academic caps are typically cylindrical in shape and known as “zukin.”
Different Styles of Graduation Caps Worldwide
Graduation caps, also known as mortarboards, come in various styles and designs worldwide. Different countries and educational institutions may have their unique variations of the graduation cap, reflecting cultural traditions, historical influences, and local practices.
Here are some of the different styles of graduation caps observed around the world:
Square Cap (Mortarboard)
The square-shaped cap, known as the mortarboard, is one of the most common styles of graduation caps worldwide. It features a flat, square top with a tassel attached to the center.
The mortarboard is prevalent in many Western countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
Sailor Cap (Studentmössa)
This style of graduation cap is popular in Sweden and Finland. It is a white cap with a stiff, circular brim and a rounded top, resembling a sailor’s cap.
Swedish and Finnish students wear this type of cap during their graduation ceremonies, often adorned with various symbols representing their achievements and extracurricular activities.
Cylindrical Cap (Zukin)
In Japan, graduates wear a cylindrical cap known as “zukin” during their commencement ceremonies. The zukin is made from cloth and features a rounded, cylindrical shape that fits snugly on the head.
It is typically black or dark-colored and is worn along with the traditional Japanese academic robe called “hakama.”
In the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, graduates often wear the Tudor bonnet. This cap has a soft, square top, similar to the mortarboard, but it is rounded at the corners.
The tassel is attached to the center of the cap. The Tudor bonnet is commonly worn with a gown and academic hood during graduation ceremonies.
German Student Cap (Pekesche)
In Germany, students wear a distinctive cap known as “Pekesche” during their graduation ceremonies. The Pekesche is a flat, square cap made from velvet or felt, and it is adorned with colored cords and ribbons that represent the student’s academic achievements and associations.
Dutch Beanie (Toque)
In the Netherlands, students often wear a traditional graduation cap called “Toque” during their graduation ceremonies. The Toque is a soft, cylindrical cap with a tassel at the top. It is typically black and may be decorated with a colored ribbon representing the student’s field of study.
Brazilian Graduation Cap (Carranca)
In Brazil, graduates wear a unique graduation cap known as “Carranca.” The Carranca is a cylindrical cap with a flat top and a tassel hanging from the center.
It is typically black and may have various designs or decorations on the sides, representing the student’s course of study or university.
Mexican Graduation Cap
In Mexico, graduates often wear a black mortarboard-style cap with a tassel during their graduation ceremonies. The cap may vary in design and size, depending on the institution.
Filipino Graduation Cap (Sablay)
In the Philippines, graduates wear a traditional Filipino garment called “Sablay” during commencement ceremonies.
The Sablay is a wide, rectangular stole with intricate patterns and symbols representing the values and culture of the country. Instead of a cap, graduates wear the Sablay over their shoulders as part of their academic attire.
These are just a few examples of the different styles of graduation caps worn around the world. Each style carries its unique cultural and historical significance, and they all serve as a symbol of academic achievement and pride during the momentous occasion of graduation.
The square graduation cap’s dominance can be attributed to a combination of practicality and tradition.
Yes, while the square graduation cap is prevalent in many Western countries, there can be subtle regional variations in its design.
The tradition of wearing a tassel on the graduation cap dates back to the 19th century. Initially, graduates wore the tassel on the right side of the cap.
During the commencement ceremony, moving the tassel from right to left symbolizes the transition from candidate to graduate and the completion of their academic journey.
While the square graduation cap is widely used, some cultures and countries have their unique styles of headgear for graduation ceremonies.
For example, in some Asian countries, cylindrical caps or headpieces resembling traditional attire are worn, reflecting the local cultural heritage and practices.
Apart from representing academic accomplishments, graduation caps can hold additional symbolic meanings.
The square graduation cap stands as a timeless emblem of scholarly pursuits and academic success. Its evolution from the round biretta to the square design encompasses a blend of historical, practical, and symbolic influences.
While the exact transition remains shrouded in history, the square shape’s association with ancient manuscripts and its functionality in accommodating tassels have undoubtedly contributed to its enduring prominence. Across cultures and continents, the square cap unites graduates, representing their shared dedication to knowledge and learning.