The first universities were founded in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries, and their responsibility of bestowing of degrees onto graduates is thought to have come from the tradition of trade guilds in the medieval era. In those days, a student would need to achieve a prescribed level of competence in their field to join a guild and commence work (which explains the origin of the term “commencement” we use for our modern graduation ceremonies). While, unlike the myriad degree programs available today, these early students were mostly limited to studying law, theology and medicine, their graduation ceremonies may have been remarkably similar to ours.
Perhaps the most widespread and longstanding university tradition worldwide is that of academic regalia, the caps and gowns worn by graduation students and faculty on the big day each spring. Hooded robes were a common form of dress in medieval times, and in many cases they were the official uniform of both students and professors well into the 20th century. In fact, one historic Toronto college still requires ceremonial robes to be worn for special events such as debates and formal dinners.
While dress codes at universities have evolved and relaxed over the years, black robes trimmed in a university’s signature colours, or colours relating to a specific degree program, persist as the de-facto outfit for the convocation ceremony, as does the other essential piece of graduate apparel: the mortarboard hat. The origins of the mortarboard (also known as the Oxford cap) aren’t entirely clear, but it is thought to have evolved from a similar hat called a “biretta” worn by European clergy. Named for its likeness to a mason’s tool for holding mortar, these hats are usually adorned with a tassel, which like the robe itself, can be colour-coded according to each university or degree program. In some places, tradition dictates that graduates’ tassels are first worn on the right, before being flipped to the left side upon receiving their degree. In Canada, some universities require graduates of doctoral programs—both faculty and students—to wear a soft, multi-sided hat called a Tudor bonnet or a tam.
Unlike caps and gowns, which are mandatory at most convocation ceremonies, another piece of regalia favoured by graduates is the optional academic ring. Thought to have originated at the United States military academy West Point in the mid-1800s, class rings are now a widespread tradition for graduates of both high school and university. While more common in the United States, Canada has several notable graduate ring traditions, including the iron ring bestowed to newly minted engineers in a special ceremony, and the X-Ring worn by graduates of a renowned Nova Scotian university.
Among the mainstays of a convocation, commencement or graduation ceremony are speeches, processions and ceremonial music. The most iconic of all of these musical accompaniments, however, has to be the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D by Sir Edward Elgar (you know it even if you don’t think you do). Written in 1901 and named after a famous speech from Shakespeare’s Othello, this piece of ceremonial music was not originally intended to accompany a graduation procession, but that changed when, in 1905, Elgar was invited to receive an honorary doctorate in music from a prestigious American university. As a tribute to the English composer, the school played Elgar’s march during the ceremony, and the rest is graduation history.
As steeped in tradition as Canadian universities are, many have their own unique traditions to mark the annual graduation festivities. At one Quebec school, for instance, graduates typically treat the dean to a spirited serenade of the school song. In Toronto, meanwhile, a more recent tradition acknowledges the adversity overcome by students of colour with an additional graduation celebration in their honour. At many institutions across the country, indigenous students are offered the option to forsake the European cap and gown and cross the convocation stage in their own traditional ceremonial dress. This is a poignant symbol of what universities can be at their very best: institutions that evolve with the best knowledge of the times, while maintaining vital links to the traditions of the past.
Jeremy Freed is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. His writing about fashion, travel, food and design appears in Sharp, Harry and re:Porter magazines, among many others.