Commencement Traditions…the Back Story


May is upon us, my favorite month of the year. With it come so many beautiful flowering trees and shrubs, the arrival of consistently warmer weather in the north where I live, and the opportunity to get back out into the garden.

Then there’s Memorial Day, the Indianapolis 500, the unofficial beginning of summer – and of course, university commencement exercises across the country.

Did you know there is actually a standard in the United States for academic apparel when it comes to commencement? The first system, designed by a fellow named Gardner Cotrell Leonard in the 1880s, was based on gown cut, style and fabric. It also designated various colors to represent fields of study (e.g. green, the color of herbs, was assigned to medicine). Though the system has been modified, the basics remain much the same.

The shape and size of the sleeve and hood indicate the degree being conferred. The gown for those receiving Bachelor’s Degrees is closed at the throat, has pointed sleeves, and no hood. Candidates for Master’s Degrees wear gowns with long, closed sleeves bearing arm slits along with a narrow hood. The gowns of Doctoral candidates are faced with velvet, have bell shaped sleeves, and draped, wide hoods.
For roughly the first half of the 20th century, gray was the color of the day. In 1986, the code was adapted as dark blue gowns were introduced to signify Doctor of Philosophy. Other color changes had been introduced earlier; in the 1950s, gowns began appearing in school colors.

The custom of wearing a cap is said to have come from the Roman practice of granting slaves the right to wear such headgear upon gaining their freedom. The Oxford (mortar board) cap is so named because of its resemblance to the masonry tool of the same name. The tassel was added sometime in the 1800s, and the color signifies the college granting the degree.

There is a standard for tassel colors, also!

Agriculture – Maize
Business Administration – Tan/Drab
Dentistry – Lilac
Education – Light Blue
Engineering – Orange
Fine Arts – Brown
Graduate Studies – Crimson
Law – Purple
Liberal Arts and Sciences – White
Medicine – Green
Music – Pink
Nursing – Apricot
Pharmacy and Health Sciences – Olive
Philosophy – Dark Blue
Physical Education – Sage Green
Science – Yellow
Social Work – Citron
Theology – Scarlet
Veterinary Science – Gray

I’ll leave you with two great commencement quotes. Though the keynote at my own commencement was legendary for its blandness (ask anyone who was there that day…I guarantee they will still remember it),  every once in a while pearls of wisdom truly are offered up!

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.
(Les Brown)

If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.
(Milton Berle)

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