Why Do We Make College Graduates Wear Such Dorky Hats?

It's the time of year where students of all kinds — high school, college, graduate school, etc. — are graduating. And everyone, except for doctoral students, has to wear the mortarboard. Which is, objectively, a ridiculous hat. So why are thousands of students struggling to keep these monstrosities on their heads this month?

Top image: Pond5.

Academic Regalia

In a lot of commencement programs, there is a section explaining the outfits worn by graduates and the school's faculty. Because everything people wear is part of a code that can be deciphered to reveal what degree a person has and where they got it. Undergrads wear the plain robe that is what likely comes to mind when you think of robes. Masters robes have square bits on the sleeves. And doctoral robes have cuffed sleeves, three velvet stripes on the sleeves, and velvet stripes down the front. Presumably, this is an attempt to melt doctoral students, by making them wear the heaviest possible robe during an event that takes place close to summer.

Masters and doctoral students wear hoods, with doctoral degrees granting longer hoods (again, doctoral graduates have the most fabric). The inside of the hood has colors reflecting the degree-granting institution and the velvet part of the hood is in a color that indicates what field the degree is in. For example, business degrees in the United States are officially denoted by the color "drab."

And then there's the hat. According to the Academic Costume Code:

Caps

Material
Cotton poplin, broadcloth, rayon, or silk, to match gown are to be used; for the doctor's degree only, velvet.

Form
Mortarboards are generally recommended.

Color
Black.

Tassel
A long tassel is to be fastened to the middle point of the top of the cap only and to lie as it will thereon. The tassel should be black or the color appropriate to the subject, with the exception of the doctor's cap that may have a tassel of gold.

"Mortarboards are generally recommended." This is a hat that consists of a hard square attached to a skullcap. It is not comfortable, easy to wear, or particularly good-looking. So why is it the recommended hat of the Academic Costume Code?

Why Do We Make College Graduates Wear Such Dorky Hats?

The Origins of the Mortarboard

Even the name of this thing isn't complimentary. Two things are called "mortarboards": the square boards that masons use to hold mortar, and the hats that looks like them. And the hat that students are forced to wear was probably more useful as a building tool. How it got that way is a tale of escalating hat size. First, academics and the clergy wore skullcaps. Then they added a slightly squared hat to the top. Then they started getting bigger, to show allegiance to the church. The clergy kept the seams that put a cross on the top of the hat, while the secular groups flattened the shape into what we see today.

The hat has its origins in the cap worn by the clergy to protect their heads. In the academic setting, caps were worn only by "doctors in the superior faculties," which meant divinity and law, which were pretty intertwined back then. So was education — which explains the back-and-forth hat innovation that followed.

Originally, the academic hat was the pileus, a skullcap with a point at the crown. In the thirteenth century, the pileus started to merge with the clergy's barret cap, which was taller and squarer than the pileus. Over time, the clergy moved to wearing the "biretta," which was even more exaggerated in its proportions than the barret cap and worn over a skullcap.

So the pileus was well on its way to squared splendor. In early Tudor times, doctors started wearing the pileus quadratus, which, as the name implies, was square. At the time, those with lower degrees started wearing the pileus rotundus, the round version. In some schools, the round hat survives — but not here in the United States.

After the Restoration, the hats' squareness was exaggerated yet again to show loyalty to the newly established churches. In order to make that structure possible, the square top was merged with the skullcap into a single hat, like what is worn today.

The American preference for the exaggerated square cap is likely related to our English history. Where the clergy of the 17th century all wore square caps, England started enlarging the square flat top of their hat, where the rest of Europe added material to the sides of the hat. This version of the biretta is still worn by Lutheran clergy, German lawyers, deans and rectors of continental European universities.

In England, Oxford and Cambridge went through several different variations on who wore square caps and round caps, and how to distinguish those with degrees in divinity. In 1636, Oxford's Laudian Code granted the pileus quadratus to pretty much everyone, with the pileus rotundus granted to "commoners and all who were not on the foundation of the colleges." And in 1769, Cambridge's undergrads successfully petitioned to wear the square cap.

In the United States, the popular form of the mortarboard can be traced to a 1950 patent filed by inventor Edward O'Reilly and Joseph Durham, a Catholic priest. The patent introduced a metal filling into the hat, making it more sturdy.

Why Do We Make College Graduates Wear Such Dorky Hats?

"Generally Recommended"

The mortarboard is now worn by most graduates at commencement, there are a few chances to get out of the hat. In England, doctorate holders more commonly wear a round hat called the "Tudor Bonnet." In the United States, doctoral graduates can wear a four-, six-, or eight-cornered velvet tam instead. And, for a while, women had the option of wearing a soft square tam instead.

As shown above, American universities' academic dress is described in the Academic Costume Code, which is the product of the American Council on Education. The first code was written in 1895. Prior to that, every university adopted its own academic costume, with no reference to each other. The 1895 code was the product of an intercollegiate commission consisting of representatives from Columbia, New York University, Princeton, Yale, and "technical adviser" Gardner Cotrell Leonard, whose company manufactured academic dress. Intercollegiate Code of Academic Costume was adopted on March 16, 1895 and was based on Columbia's own academic costume code. In comparison to its European counterparts, the American code had much vaguer descriptions, but it applies to all colleges rather than just each individual school.

The American Council on Education (ACE) got involved in 1932, appointing a committee to determine whether the old code needed revision. The 1932 committee left the 1895 code mostly unchanged. Since then, the ACE has changed the code three times: 1959 (which approved the soft version of the mortarboard for women), 1973, and 1987 (removing the option of the soft hat for women). The 1987 revision was the last, and that's where we get the current general recommendation of the mortarboard.

It should be noted that the American Costume Code is technically just a guide, and schools aren't required to follow it. For example, while the code recommends black robes, many schools will have graduates wear robes in the school colors.

So, the next time you see a student struggling to keep a mortarboard on, know that there's a lot of history behind the choice to put him or her in this stupid, stupid hat.

Images: Painting of Noblemen in the Pileus Quadratus in the Monastery of Markovia, Duke Commencement Procession, 1931/Duke Archive/flickr