Why Do Graduates Wear Caps and Gowns and Judges Wear Robes?

Why Do Graduates Wear Caps and Gowns and Judges Wear Robes?

October 26, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Wearing academic robes is a tradition that
dates back to at least the 12th century, around the time when the first universities were
being founded in Europe. During this time, most scholars were also
clerics or aspiring clerics, and excess in apparel was not encouraged. As such, in the beginning it is thought that
there was little difference between what the academics were wearing and the laity, excepting
that the academics and clergy tended to wear very plainly colored garb. Beyond that, the clothing was simply practical. When the universities were originally formed,
they had no official buildings of their own to hold lectures in, so classes typically
gathered in nearby churches. Their simple robes and outer covering served
the purpose of keeping them warm in the drafty medieval church buildings, and the hoods kept
the weather off when they ventured out of doors. The earliest standardization of academic garb
occurred as a byproduct of a 1222 edict by Stephen Langton at the Council of Oxford,
where it was declared that all clerks should wear a form of the cappa clausa, a long cape
typically worn over a robe. In short order, this became thought of as
a mark of an academic as the newly minted universities adopted it for the aforementioned
reasons, while at the same time the clergy in general (outside of academic contexts)
over time wore it less and less. By 1321, this ultimately lead to the University
of Coimbra mandating that plain gowns be worn by Licentiates, Bachelors, and Doctors. By Tudor times, more or less this same basic
standard had been set for academic dress at Oxford and Cambridge. Gradually more comfortable versions were adopted
keeping a version of the robe, but without the thick outer layer. As for coloring, things remained very plain,
generally black. Certain colors weren’t designated to represent
specific areas of study until a few centuries later in the late 1800s, with the standards
varying from country to country and in many cases university to university. So that’s the gowns, what about the goofy
looking caps, or mortarboards? The mortarboard is called such due to it resembling
the flat board used by bricklayers to hold mortar (called a ‘hawk’). The cap is simply a square, flat board fastened
to a skullcap with a jaunty tassel fastened to its center. Some historians suggest the mortarboard is
the descendant of the biretta, which was headgear often sported by Roman Catholic clerics, scholars
and professors. This, in turn, probably derives from common
pileus (brimless hat) worn by the laity. The wearing of this hat was first ordered
in 1311 by the Church at the Synod of Bergamo, spreading from there as standard headgear
by clerics. By the 15th century, the mortarboard cap was
incorporated into the standard garb for many scholars, among others. It was initially not generally undecorated
as today (other than the tassel), but early versions could feature elaborate embroidery
and adornments. Further, in the early days at some universities,
the mortarboard was reserved for those who had earned the title of “master” or “doctor.” As explained by French historian Jacques Le
Goff: “Once he had passed the examination, the
candidate became licensed, however he could only possess the title of “doctor” and
teach as a Master following the public examination … In this way, he assumed for the first
time the role of the Master in a university setting. After this, the archdeacon ceremoniously conferred
upon him the authorization to teach, along with the symbolic regalia appropriate to his
function: a professorial chair, an open book, a golden ring, and the mortar board or cap.” Today the bar is not set quite as high, and
all grads are typically entitled to mortarboards in regions where they are worn. The tradition of the graduating class throwing
their caps in the air at the end of the ceremony has a relatively recent genesis. The first known instance of this was in 1912
at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. There are slightly conflicting accounts as
to the reason they did this, but the general story is that it is because the Academy decided
to give them their officers’ hats at the graduation itself. Thus, the graduates chucked their midshipmen’s
caps in the air upon graduation, and ceremoniously placed their officers’ hats on. Unfortunately, how accurate that story is
and how that ended up catching on with other universities has been lost to history. It may simply be it happened independently
in many places as after the ceremony is over, no need for the stupid hats anymore, and it’s
kind of fun to throw things in excitement. Whatever the case, from medieval abbeys where
the style of dress was more or less just a version of what most people wore in parts
of Europe at the time, to modern high school gyms where the garb is decidedly out of place
outside of certain ceremonies, caps and gowns have continued to denote academic accomplishment,
with no sign of the tradition letting up any time soon. Bonus Fact:
As for why judges typically wear robes, this more or less seems to be for similar reasons
as gowns for academics. For example, this became the standard uniform
for judges in England during the reign of Edward II, who ruled from 1327 until 1377. At this point, as mentioned, they had already
been the standard garb for academics for over a century, as well as worn in other settings. For instance, this type of garb would also
have been appropriate for wear for a visit to the royal court, so a judge wearing his
robes outside of the courtroom would not have been out of place. The standard robe color for judges in England
at this time was not black, however, but rather came in three colors: violet for the summer,
green for the winter, and scarlet for special occasions. Judges often received the material for these
robes as part of a grant from the King. However, new guidelines dictating which robes
could be worn at certain times appeared in 1635, including suggesting judges wear black
robes with a fur trim during the winter and violet or scarlet robes that feature pink
taffeta for the summer. By the middle of the 18th century, English
judges typically wore a scarlet robe with a black scarf and a scarlet hood when presiding
over criminal cases, but for civil cases, they often wore black silk robes. Judges in the U.S. ultimately borrowed this
tradition from the British. This topic actually produced debate between
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams after the revolution. Jefferson argued that American judges should
distance themselves from the traditions set down by the English and wear only a suit in
court. Adams, a lawyer, disagreed and wanted judges
to continue wearing the robes and wigs of English judges. A compromise ensued, with it being decided
that the new American judges should wear the robe and not the wig. That said, in the United States the wearing
of robes by judges is now only tradition. Even in the Supreme Court of the United States
there is no requirement that its justices wear a robe in court. Despite this, the vast majority of judges
do so anyway, with some exceptions.