Traditions

Learn about the history and meaning of the commencement procession and the academic regalia worn during the commencement ceremony.

graduates wearing cap and gown line up for the procession at the 2021 UMKC commencement

Procession

Most academic ceremonies begin and end with an academic procession, a descendant of clerical processions. The procession is formed in ranks of two, and all participants are dressed in gowns appropriate to their degrees. At the head of the procession is the chief marshal. Other marshals, members of the faculty and alumni accompany the commencement procession.

In the British universities, marshals were originally messengers of the proctors, and they patrolled the streets of university towns nightly to prevent conflicts between students and townspeople. Today the term is applied to those appointed to organize the commencement procession and keep it in order. The commencement procession is led by the students who are receiving degrees. Following in consecutive order are the faculty and deans, the presidents of affiliated organizations, the trustees, the curators, the chancellor and the president.

two graduates pose by each other at the commencement at Kauffman Stadium

Academic Regalia

Origin

When universities were first taking form in the 12th and 13th centuries, they were under the jurisdiction of the church. Most people studying were members of holy orders and wore cloaks with cowls or hoods. This mode of dress soon became associated with students, and in the early 1300s became the standard academic attire at Oxford and Cambridge.

Academic dress first appeared in America in colonial days. With the establishment of Columbia College in New York in 1754, many of the regulations of the British universities were transplanted to this side of the Atlantic. In the latter part of the 19th century, more and more colleges in the United States began to use academic attire at commencement exercises. The movement was essentially a student one, desired because of the uniformity, dignity and sense of tradition that the wearing of robes gave to the ceremony.

As the custom grew, it became evident that a flexible system adaptable to all institutions was necessary. In 1895, a uniform code was drafted by an intercollegiate commission, which chose the design of the caps, gowns, hoods, colors and materials for the various degree-holders from universities in the United States. The deliberations of this group have only been modified slightly by successor committees appointed by the American Council on Education. This uniform American style of academic dress provides a method for identifying the highest degree held by the wearers and from what faculty and university they received it. This contrasts with the British universities, in which each has a code of its own.

a graduate wearing a cap and gown poses in the seat at Kauffman Stadium for the UMKC commencement ceremony

Gown

Three types of gowns have been devised for bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. The official gown for the bachelor’s degree is black, has a stiff yoke, shirring across the shoulder, pleated front panels, and it can be distinguished by its long pointed sleeves. It should be worn closed and have no adornments.

Master’s degree gowns, until 1960, were made to be worn open. The sleeves appeared short, with the rest of the material being an oblong drape that terminated around the knee of the wearer. The gown was particularly cumbersome, and in 1960 the American Council on Education modified it. Now, the gown closely resembles the bachelor’s gown, and the master’s degree gown can be worn closed.

The gown for the doctoral degree is distinguished by the velvet panels around the neck and stitched down the front edges to the hem. It is cut much fuller than the other gowns and may be ornamented in color. Three horizontal bars decorate the full, bell-shaped sleeves. The velvet trim may be either black or the color of the school to which the degree refers.

Originally, the bachelor’s degree gown was made of black worsted and the master’s and doctor’s gowns of black silk, but today’s wide choice of fabrics, including synthetics, makes the matter of material primarily one of individual preference.

A graduate waves while wearing a flower wreath with her cap during commencement at Kauffman Stadium

Cap

The mortarboard or Oxford-type cap is a descendant of the simple, round commoner’s cap of medieval times. The name “mortarboard” comes from its similarity in shape to the square board commonly used for mixing mortar. It is always black and may be of an appropriate material, except velvet, which is reserved for doctors. The tassel hangs over the left front quarter of the top. Tradition decrees the mortarboard should be worn indoors and outdoors.

graduates line up to receive their diploma. They are wearing caps, gowns and hoods

Hood

Originally used as a head covering, shoulder cape or a bag for collecting alms, the hood is retained today for the sake of tradition. Its shape is like that used when large wigs were worn, when the wearers did not wish to cover their elaborate hair styles. The hoods were kept merely for their symbolic and decorative effect. A narrow neckband connects the two halves of the cape proper, which is lined with colored silk or taffeta.

The shape and size of the American hood is determined by the college degree of the wearer; the color of the outside velvet border marks the academic school in which the degree was taken, and the color or colors of the hood lining are the official colors of the institution.

A bachelor’s degree hood is three feet in length with a velvet border two inches wide; a master’s degree hood, three and one-half feet long with a three-inch-wide velvet border; and a doctoral degree hood, four feet long with a five-inch-wide border. The color of the velvet border is determined by the faculty or school in which the degree was taken.

In assigning colors, much consideration was given to historical association.

  • White (the white fur of the Oxford hood) - schools of art
  • Red (the traditional color of the church) - theology
  • Green (herbs) - medicine
  • Golden yellow - science
  • Sapphire blue - business administration
  • Lilac - dentistry
  • Light blue - education 
  • Orange - engineering
  • Brown - fine arts 
  • Purple - law
  • Pink - music
  • Olive - pharmacy
  • Blue - philosophy

The name of the institution at which the degree was conferred is designated by the colors used in the hood lining. As the same colors are used again by various colleges, different methods of combining them are employed. In addition, many institutions used chevrons to meet the need for further differentiation.

Hoods may consist of one or more colors and as many as three chevrons. This system, though distinctive and advantageous in some respects, limits the human ability to recognize the degree hoods of more than 800 degree-granting universities and colleges.

The University of Missouri hood has a lining of old gold, with each campus showing a different color chevron.

  • UMKC - two blue chevrons
  • MU - two black chevrons
  • Missouri S&T - two silver chevrons
  • UMSL - two scarlet chevrons

A person holding more than one degree wears the gown and hood of the highest degree. Someone having two degrees of equal importance can have the velvet border of his hood indicate both colors, but usually the last degree taken is the one indicated by the colors of the velvet. The color or colors of only one institution may be shown in the hood lining.

Members of the administration of a university are all entitled to wear doctor’s gowns, but their hoods must accurately represent the degree they actually hold. A trustee holding a bachelor’s degree may wear a doctor’s gown for ceremony, but he must wear a bachelor’s hood. It is permissible for a faculty member to wear in the hood lining the colors of the college at which he is in residence rather than the one at which his degree was conferred.

an undergraduate student poses with a graduate student at the commencement at the K

Cord

  • Gold - Students ranking in the upper 10 percent of their graduating classes and meeting the academic standards prescribed by the faculty will be graduated “with distinction.”
  • Red - Students who complete the prescribed courses in the honors program and meet the program’s specified academic standards will receive degrees designated “honors.” The red cord symbolizes the graduate’s completion of 21 to 28 hours of honors credit courses and a grade point average of 3.0 or better.
  • Blue - Students graduating with honors who are designated as an Honors Program Scholar. They also have completed 21 to 28 hours of honors credit courses, maintained a GPA of 3.0 or better, but have additionally completed an undergraduate honors thesis for six credit hours.