For many the month of May means graduation season. Whether eagerly awaiting a graduation ceremony, or fondly remembering a ceremony from days gone by, the images of long robes, and graduation marches are sure to fill your mind. From the classic “Pomp and Circumstance” to graduation regalia (or as my children like to call them wizard’s robes) the roots of American graduation ceremonies are steeped in European traditions but adapted to fit the unique nature of American universities. Below is a fun historical prospective detailing how some of these traditions came about.
Pomp and Circumstance
If you’ve been to an American graduation ceremony, or seen one on TV or in the movies, chances are you watched students march in to “Pomp and Circumstance.” How did the song become a staple in American graduation ceremonies? “Pomp and Circumstance” was composed by Edward Elgar in 1901. In 1902 the song was used during the coronation of Brittan’s Edward VII. Four years later, Elgar was awarded an honorary doctorate from Yale University, and the song was played as he left the stage. Over the next couple of years many Ivy League Universities used the song during their ceremonies forming the long-standing tradition. Over the years the tradition evolved, and the song is now used as a processional rather than a recessional during graduation ceremonies. Although Elgar likely did not mean to write an iconic piece linked to matriculation ceremonies he probably knew it was perfect for the occasion since he described the song as “a tune that comes once in a lifetime.”
Graduation regalia is easy to spot, but the site of a robed student often raises the question why all the pomp and circumstance? The tradition of wearing robes for graduation also comes from Europe. Unlike “Pomp and Circumstance,” however, it was a tradition borne out of necessity. Members of the clergy in Europe first sported the robes to keep warm in poorly heated brick buildings in the 12th and 13th centuries. The use of robes evolved over the years to eventually be associated strictly with academia. Once used as an academic uniform, robes today are used exclusively for graduation ceremonies. In 1894 the American Intercollegiate Commission met at Columbia University to standardize graduation regalia for American universities. Today graduation regalia is unique to each university, but the American Counsel on Education continues to release recommendations.
Graduation regalia is also unique to the degree being honored. Traditionally, students being honored for receiving their bachelor’s degrees wear closed gowns with pointed sleeves; those receiving master’s degrees sport robes with oblong sleeves which may be worn closed or open; doctoral students wear closed robes with bell sleeves often characterized by velvet bands on the front and sleeves. The iconic mortarboard can be seen on bachelor’s degree candidates, and is also used in high school graduation ceremonies. Whereas, master and doctoral candidates wear a four, six, or eight sided tam.
Black is the recommended color for graduation robes, but many institutions prefer robes in school colors. The color of the trimmings of doctors’ gowns, edging of hoods, and tassels of caps are often associated with the discipline of the degree. For example, purple is associated with the study of law, and green with the study of medicine.
Regardless of the regalia worn or the songs played the symbol is the same. The traditions of graduation ceremonies signify to the world the academic achievements that bring together a group of people who may otherwise be very diverse. Take the time to congratulate a graduate this spring, they’ve earned it.