What Is the History of Graduation Hats?


Quick Answer

Graduation hats — usually squared mortarboards or tams — originated as hats worn by clergymen. The mortarboard probably developed from the Roman pileus quadratus, a skull cap with a square top that Italians called a “biretta.” The 14th and 15th centuries saw birettas used to designate humanist scholars (as separate from clergy), students and artists.

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Full Answer

The tradition of awarding graduation hats to clerics dates back at least to the Roman empire, when ceremonial caps were conferred on priests upon earning the right to celebrate sacred rites. The practice of designated ordained clerics with caps began with the synod of Bergamo in 1311. In early academics in England, only doctors received graduation hats. Since then, part of conferring a college or university degree and receiving a new master into academic practice has included the presentation of a hat. In 1570, the University of Cambridge required mortarboards for fellows but not graduates, while Oxford required mortarboards for both students and graduates starting in 1602.

In contemporary practice, undergraduates and candidates for master's degrees graduate wearing mortarboards. In addition to the mortarboard, graduation hats conferred on doctoral candidates include tams, featuring four to eight corners and modeled after the Tudor bonnet, and soft square tams in favor with some women graduates.

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