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Graduation Hats – Essential Facts

By Taylor James


Updated on

The graduation hat is a square academic cap worn when students graduate from educational institutions. The hat is a skull cap with a square board fixed on top.

Graduation hat

Graduation Hats Are Also Called Mortarboard Hats

This academic icon got its name from its resemblance to the mortarboard brick masons use to hold mortar. It has been suggested that the hat’s origins may stem from the Roman pileus.

The Pileus was a simple skull cap presented to free Roman slaves. The heads of the slaves were first shaved, then, they were touched with a rod called a vindicta and pronounced to be free. The pileus was placed on their head. Both the rod and cap represented the goddess of liberty.

The Graduation Hat Dates to the 15th Century

The origin of the hat in education has roots in religion. The first educational institutions had close ties to the Church. It is thought that the square shape developed from the biretta hats commonly worn by catholic clerics and scholars at the time.

The Square Grad Cap Used To Be a Symbol of Higher Prestige

As early as the 11th century, academics wore caps without the square feature. Initially, the square ‘mortarboard’ was reserved only for those with higher degrees. Other students would wear the traditional rounded caps.

Recipients of Masters and Doctorates Wear the Graduation Tam

Even though the round caps used to be symbols of lower academic levels in the 17th century, the opposite is now true. Nowadays, students graduating with a master’s or doctorate wear the graduation tam or Tudor bonnet. 

Graduation tams look similar to mortarboards in the way they sit on the head. However, the main headpiece is smaller and more round than the rigid square of regular grad hats. Befitting their status they are made from high-quality velvet.

Read more about Tudor hats here.

The Tassels Positioning Is Symbolic in Some Ceremonies

While the tassel holds no importance in some countries, other countries like the United States use the tassel to symbolize different things in the graduation ceremony. 

Some ceremonies have all undergrad students wearing the tassel on the right. In contrast, the graduate students wear them on the left. There is also a tradition where students keep the tassel on one side for the beginning of the ceremony. After they receive their diploma, they move it to the other side. 

If you are graduating this year, check out the GraduationMall Unisex Adult Matte Graduation Cap on Amazon.

Final Thoughts

These hats demonstrate the social and cultural significance hats have now and throughout history. While the role of hats in everyday life is not what it once was, the relationship between hats and status still holds strong in our educational institutions.

About Taylor James

As Philip Treacy once said, “How a hat makes you feel is what a hat is all about.” And on that note, I hope you enjoy your hats and find the site useful. Learn more about Hat Realm's Editorial Process.