A tradition that reaches back nearly a thousand years, commencement symbolizes not so much the culmination of the years of effort on the part of both students and teachers, but rather the beginning—the commencement—of a productive social and professional life, and a life of continued learning.
The first university, the University of Bologna, was founded in Italy in 1162 and offered specialized education in the major professional fields of the medieval world: law, medicine, government and theology—areas that would dominate European and American higher education until the 20th century.
From Bologna, the concept of university education spread throughout Europe and later to the New World. The pageantry and symbolism of commencement are typified by the cap and gown, which in their original forms were simply the everyday attire of the medieval scholar. The additions of the centuries have made them what they are today.
The academic costume has three basic parts: the cap, the gown and the hood. Three factors must be taken into consideration—the degree (bachelor, master, doctor); the branch of knowledge (nursing, medicine, etc.); and the university by which the degree is granted. The bachelor's gown is black, has long sleeves and is worn closed. The master's gown is black but has short sleeves and a crescent cut at the sleeve end. Some are open at the wrist; others have a slit in the upper part of the sleeve. The doctor's gown is often black, preferably silk, with full, round sleeves that are barred in either black velvet or velvet of the color used in the hood to designate the branch of learning.
Many American universities, as well as British ones, now have gowns of characteristic color for doctoral graduates. For instance, a graduate of Harvard University may wear a crimson gown, a New York University graduate a violet gown, and a University of Pennsylvania graduate a gown of red and blue. The shape and size of the American hood mark the degree of the wearer. The lining of the hood is indicative of the institution granting the degree and is usually the official color or colors of the school. If two colors are used, one is generally arranged as a chevron upon the other. The bachelor's hood is three feet long, the master's three-and-a-half feet long, and the doctor's four feet long. Bachelor of Science and Master of Science candidates wear sun-gold hoods; Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts candidates white hoods. Doctor of Philosophy candidates wear blue hoods. Doctor of Medicine candidates wear green hoods. Candidates with annotated degrees may wear hoods of other colors, such as apricot (Bachelor and Master of Science in Nursing), teal (Master of Physical Therapy), and blue with white trim (Master of Arts, Creative Arts in Therapy), to name a few.
Caps are traditionally black with a long tassel fastened to the mid-point. A doctor's cap may have a tassel of gold thread. The tassel is worn on the right side until a degree has been conferred; it is then worn on the left. Commencement begins and ends with the academic procession, led by the chief marshal carrying the mace. The mace traces its origins to the Roman fasces, a bundle of rods bound together around an ax with the blade projecting, which was carried before magistrates as an emblem of authority. The ceremony officially begins with the placing of the mace before the graduates and ends when the chief marshal retrieves it and leads the recession. The color guard follows the marshal, with the candidates for degrees marching behind in reverse order of seniority—certificate, associate, and bachelor's first, master's next and doctoral third. The faculty follows, also proceeding in reverse order from assistant to full professor. The final division of the procession is the platform party, composed of academic deans, administrative officers, trustees, honorary degree recipients and the president.
Throughout their long and proud history, universities have retained and cherished strong ties to their ceremonial roots. The faculties and graduates have gloried in the rich imagery and colorful panoply associated with commencement, one of the oldest continuing rituals in the Western world.