It’s become a joyous celebratory tradition: the word “congratulations” is said and suddenly, the air is cut by dozens and dozens of flat, tasseled hats thrown skyward. But why do graduates wear those things anyway?
In the beginning, there were skullcaps worn by teachers, wise men and clergy to protect their heads. Of course, plain old fabric just wouldn’t do. Embellishment was added, including small flat tops that became larger over time, possibly to indicate piety. Though there were differing types of squared-top hats, by the 13th century the clergy had somewhat settled on a biretta, a square hat with peaks on top. By Tudor times, doctors had modified that into a completely flat, square pileus quadratus to indicate their status while lesser academics wore rounded caps.
During the Reformation, the skullcap and the pileus quadratus came together, mostly for ease of wear. But that wasn’t the last change in the headgear. In the 17th century British scholars began modifying the pileus quadratus by giving the flat top more square inches, totally reserving the more tam-like biretta for clergy. Altering the size also made it possible to tell, at a glance, which degree an individual held and what their status may be. Eventually the size with which we are familiar was settled upon.
At some point in the hat’s history it became known as a mortarboard because of its similarity to a mason’s working tool. Today, most graduates—whether commencing from kindergarten, high school or higher education—wear them. For the latter, the mortarboard is highly recommended by the Academic Costume Code of the American Council on Education and it can be square, have multiple corners or even be a tam instead. Tassels are left up to the school; they may match the school colors or designate a degree or specialty of study. The tassels of course, are traditionally moved from the right side during commencement, to the left side upon graduation.
And as for the mortarboard tossing, that began in 1912 in Annapolis when the graduates threw their hats aloft. Alas, the tradition may be coming to an end: schools are increasingly aware that tossed cornered hats can result in student injuries.