Town & Gown

I attended graduation in my school today – and this got me wondering about the tradition of the cap and gown – where did this almost worldwide custom originate from? 

The custom of caps and gowns is as old as universities – and dates back to the 12th century. At that time gowns and hoods were worn in university on a daily basis by the clergy who were the teachers and the aspiring clergy who were the students – they were the only ones who attended these church owned universities. Wearing these gowns visually separated the scholars from the lay people in the town  – hence the term town and gown. Also wearing the same apparel gave a sense of unity to the college students and professors.

Quad at Oxford university

The gown and the hood kept the clergy with the shaved heads warm in the unheated university buildings. Later the hood was replaced by the skull cap we see today.The square shape of the skull cap is said to trace its origins to the quad at Oxford – but this is only one of many theories.

At universities like Cambridge and Oxford, gowns were to be worn according to the strict specifications of the university – and professors in these institutions wear a gown and cap on a daily basis even now. Students wear the full academic regalia for special occasions.

Harvard, Princeton, and Brown that started during colonial times in the US followed the customs prevalent in European universities and required the wearing of gowns on a daily basis. It was not until after the civil war when there was dislike for everything English that gowns and caps as college uniforms dropped out of fashion in the US. Their use continued only for graduation ceremonies, which also made the cap and gown signify achievement.

Howard Willis Dodds (1889-1980),President,Princeton University in academic regalia (pr.princeton.edu)

The long history associated with the caps and gowns makes them even more meaningful and special.

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