Whether you’re earning a high school diploma or a college degree, you must don the large, flowing gown and awkward hat that make up traditional graduation regalia. When I graduated from high school this past summer, my parents ordered my sister and I black gowns and caps to celebrate. (Being home schooled does not mean that one eschews all tradition.)
Conducting the ceremony ourselves, we had to determine how to wear the cap properly and where the tassel should be placed. At the beginning of the ceremony, the tassel must hang at the right temple; at the end of the ceremony, the officiant or the student moves it to the left. I wondered about the origin or superstition surrounding this formality, but didn’t seek the answer until now.
Before fiddling with fine details about tassel movement, we must first ask how the tradition of cap and gown on graduation came to be. The roots of this tradition begin not in scholarship, but in religion. Catholic bishops in the 12th and 13th centuries, in response to the demand brought by city growth, established cathedral schools to train professional clergy. The students in these schools wore the robes and other vestments associated with the clerical class.
As time passed, Catholic clerical colleges evolved into non-religious universities. Oftentimes the clergy would still teach, and the students came to adopt the same dress as their professors. Some universities in Europe mandated that students only wear gowns, such as the University of Coimbra in 1321; their policy stated that all bachelors, doctors, and licentiates must wear a gown.
When the European university moved to America, beginning with Harvard University in 1636, some of the traditions of the Old World followed, including the academic regalia. The present system for it in America is the product of the Intercollegiate Commission in 1895, and largely thanks to businessman Gardner Cotrell Leonard. Gardner made academic gowns through his family’s store Cotrell & Leonard, and even designed the robes worn by his graduating class in 1887.
The Commission established a set of regulations on the cut, style, materials, and colors used in gowns to distinguish degree level and degree type. Today, a committee oversees these regulations, ensuring that they are still relevant and up-to-date.
While we could discuss at length how the details of a robe distinguish the bachelor’s student from the doctoral student and the English major from the psychology major, we shall instead turn to the question that kick-started my curiosity: Why do we change the position of the tassel?
I present to you an unsatisfactory answer: The origins of the tradition are unknown. However, the symbolism is obvious: Once a diploma has been awarded and accepted, one moves the tassel of the cap to signify that one has moved from student to graduate. In fact, while swinging from the right to the left is typical the direction doesn’t matter so long as the symbolic change takes place.