Cap and Gown – a European Tradition

The Gown


Historically, the gown originated as a form of academic dress at Medieval universities.


In addition to its use by church officers and representatives of the state, particularly judges, the ankle-length robe was also adopted in an academic context as an additional garment on account of the cold and draughty halls of Medieval universities.

Talar Geschichte

Wearing hats at universities, however, was prohibited and in their stead, caps and mortarboards were adopted.


The wearing of the gown has by no means been a recognised tradition since the beginning of universities themselves, but rather grew out of a compromise.
Dignitaries at the recently-founded universities demanded an official costume suited to their dignity, for use at graduation ceremonies or when there was a change of rector. The Prussian government established that professors should appear in traditional black dress, ornamented at the most by a silver embroidery on the breast and collar.
The Culture Ministry in Berlin issued a ruling that governed even the colours of the different faculties. Violet was chosen for the ecclesiastical and theological faculty, purple for the faculty of laws, scarlet red for the medical faculty and dark blue for the philosophical faculty.
For many years, the gown remained the official costume of professors, at least during official festivities.


The student movement of 1968 challenged the attitudes of professors and the tradition of wearing gowns came into its firing line . The consequent change in attitudes has resulted in students and professors in Germany normally discontinuing the wearing of gowns at any time during their studies, including academic graduation ceremonies, such as those for Diplomas or Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Even official graduation or award ceremonies are no longer standard for the conferring of these academic degrees. The appropriate documents are often unceremoniously posted or must be collected from the secretary of the appropriate faculty.


Increasingly, students today are demanding that their achievements be properly honoured at an official graduation ceremony at which the diploma is conferred and they are proud to wear a cap and gown. This practice is currently being supported by leading and renowned German universities in particular. And so once again in Germany, as is the case internationally, we have formal and dignified graduation ceremonies that include academic regalia.


The cap (mortar board):

The cap or mortar board has been in use since the 15th century and belongs to the official dress of scholars – historically, caps were used by professors to cover their heads. They were frequently decorated with embroidery, strings of pearls (only for aristocrats) or feathers (e.g. for Landsknechte -  mercenary pikemen).


The cap or mortar board is the symbol for having attained the title of “doctor.” French historian Jacques Le Goff describes the elaborate doctorate examination in his book “Intellectuals in Medieval Times” as follows:
“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. For this purpose, he was brought with much pomp to the cathedral, where he gave a speech; he also advanced a thesis regarding a point of law and defended it against the students, who critiqued it. 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 authorisation 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 cap has become a black, four-sided hat with a tassel, and is worn not only by persons holding a doctorate or higher academic degrees, but also by graduates (for this purpose, called a “mortar board”).
The mortar board was originally a flat hat that was round or with several corners, and was either knitted, made of material, velvet or lined silk without a visor or brim.
The combination of mortar board and gown was consistent with official academic dress and is worn by students at their graduation ceremony, while the cap – most recognisable by its stiff top – reposes fittingly on the bookshelf after the ceremony.


In 1959, the American Committee for Academic Dress and Ceremonies issued the following guidelines for wearing the mortar board:

During the ceremony and the conferral of the diploma, the hats shall be worn continuously. Men may remove the hats during the prayer and national anthem. This should then be done by all students. There are no general rules for the positioning of the tassel. At many universities, the following tradition has become established. Before the diploma is received, the tassel is worn on the right side. After graduation, the tassel is moved to the left side.


In order to optimize our website for you and to be able to continuously improve it, we use cookies. By continuing to use the website, you agree to the use of cookies.

Further information about cookies from our domain can be found in our Cookie Policy