Commencement primer: Graduation traditions explained

What is behind all the tradition of graduation?

The Saginaw High School graduating class of 2016 lines up to receive their hard-earned diplomas. (Photo: Claire Hickey)

FORT WORTH, Texas, June 8, 2016 — It’s June, and the 2016 spring commencement season is coming to a close. Those participating in the graduation ceremonies may find themselves wondering about the traditions surrounding this particular event. Why do graduates march in to “Pomp and Circumstance“? And why do candidates for graduation wear a robe and funny looking Mr. Chips-type hat and tassel?

Some of the answers surprised me.

Let’s start with the graduation garb. According to the University of Texas at Austin, the need for higher education in Western Europe grew during the 12th century for the education of priests and monks. At that time in history sufficient heating systems didn’t exist in the damp and clammy old buildings. Students improvised to keep warm, styling their garments after the clerical gowns worn by the ordained. The website goes on to say, “After that the gown became the official dress of academics to not only keep warm in drafty halls, but to stand out from non-academics.”

Who Invented It? says, “Today’s graduation cap and gown began as the everyday wear of medieval scholars.” But only those with advanced degrees wore the mortarboard hat. They go on to say that the cap we know today is descended from the biretta, a hat associated with the clergy. The mortar part of the hat we now think of is much stiffer than in the beginning. Wool or velvet made up the original head coverings that are still common headwear for those with higher degrees. Modern times saw the addition of rigid material that we see in today’s graduation caps. The chapeau got its name, “cap and mortar” after the mortar board used by bricklayers and masons to blend the composite that joins masonry together. It symbolizes the knowledge built through years of hard work that leads to graduation.

Biretta - Hat worn by clergy that is the foreunner of cap worn at today's graduations. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Biretta – Hat worn by clergy that is the foreunner of cap worn at today’s graduations (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Tassels have been around for centuries. Both ancient Egyptians and the elite of the Roman Empire wore them as badges of power and prestige. In A.D. 540 the Emperor Justinian smuggled silkworms out of China just to make tassels. In the 1500s the French Guild of the Passementiers created the art of passementerie, a tassel-making apprenticeship program that took seven years to complete. Institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge were the ones who made tassels part of academic attire.

Europeans are diverse in their scholarly dress, but the United States standardized it. According to All Over Albany, Gardiner Cotrell Leonard came from a family that tailored and owned a dry goods store in Albany, N.Y. He designed the graduation gowns for his graduating class at Williams College in 1887. “His work designing his class’ graduation gowns spawned in him a considerable interest in creating a system of caps and gowns.”

Leonard describes in an 1893 article for University Magazine the intent with which he created the cap and gown we know today. He said the modern commencement ensemble is to remind those who don it of the continuity and dignity of learning. It also covers the differences in students’ dress, taste, fashion, manners and wealth, presenting graduates equally at commencement.

Leonard also worked to establish an Intercollegiate commission composed of the leading institutions of the day. In 1895 it adopted the code of academic dress that included various colors for the trim and accessories that represent different fields of learning in higher education.

Loyola University says, The Costume Code calls for three types of gowns: doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s. The doc­toral gown is the most elaborate, with front-facing velvet and three velvet bars on each of the full, bil­lowing sleeves. The velvet can be black, PhD blue, or the academic color to which the degree corresponds. The master’s gown is distinctive for its extremely long, closed sleeves, the arms protruding through a slit at the elbow. The bachelor’s gown is the simplest of the three, a plain gown with long, pointed sleeves.” From high school on down graduates wear their school colors in the tassel, gown and cords.

The “Pomp and Circumstance” we know and love is part of a work by Sir Edward Elgar: March in “D” Major, also known as March No. 1, according to “Elgar — A Chronology of Major Works“: “The D Major march became the first in a series of five marches that Elgar named ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ taking their title from a speech in Act 3 of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’: ‘Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump, / The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife, / The royal banner, and all quality, / Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!’”

The graduation march we know is the trio section in the march. The trio is the central part of the piece and is in a different key than the main melody. Elgar’s trio, what Americans refer to as “Pomp and Circumstance,” is in G major.

And there are words to the piece as well. Know Britain says that the son of Queen Victoria, soon to be Edward VII, liked Elgar’s first march so much he wanted it to be part of his coronation ceremony in the summer of 1902. Elgar collaborated with Arthur C. Benson, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to create “Coronation Ode.” The resulting song is “Land of Hope and Glory.” Click here for the lyrics.

Sir Edward Elgar, composer of "The D Major March" which became "Coronation Ode" for the coronation of King Edward VII.
Sir Edward Elgar, composer of “The D Major March,” which became “Coronation Ode” for the coronation of King Edward VII

To the Brits, “Land of Hope and Glory” evokes the same sense of honor and patriotism that “The Star-Spangled Banner” does in Americans. It is a tune of national pride, although it is not the British national anthem; that distinction goes to “God Save the Queen.” Click here to see Elgar’s masterpiece performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on the last night of the Proms, or Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The opus always serves as the finale for the concert series. Be sure to watch it.

Elgar, mostly self-taught, received an honorary doctorate in music during Yale’s 1905 commencement. It was at this ceremony that the trio of “Pomp and Circumstance” was first associated with a graduation; it played while guests exited the hall. The piece made such an impression on the assembled audience that other colleges and universities soon adopted it for their commencement exercises. It spread so far that by the 1920s colleges, high schools and junior high schools all over the United States were using it to march their graduates into and out of their ceremonies. It is now such a part of the fabric of American life that one can’t hear the words “graduation” or “commencement” without the familiar bars promenading through our heads.


Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul in the Communities Digital News and Greater Fort Worth Writers.

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