The robes, hoods, caps, and tassels worn by graduates and faculty have evolved over at least 700 years. Originally, robes similar to those seen today were worn by everyone in the early Middle Ages. As tastes in clothing changed, only members of the clergy retained traditional robes. The first European universities were church-related, so students and faculty wore clerical robes on all occasions.
Nowadays three types of robes are distinguished for the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. The doctoral robe has three stripes on the sleeve as an indication of this highest academic degree.
Hoods, which hang on the back of the robe, are now mere abbreviations of their original form; they began as cowls to be pulled over the head for warmth. The color of the hood indicates the area of study pursued by the wearer and the university attended.
Caps have evolved into a distinctive square shape but were originally round. The shape resembles the tool workers use to hold cement and plaster in the construction of a building, so these caps are called “mortarboards.”
Tassels are generally worn on the left side of the cap to indicate the degree has been conferred, so all faculty wear theirs on the left. Graduating students begin their Commencement ceremony with tassels on the right but move them to the left when their degrees are awarded.