It's the time of year where students of all kinds — high school, college, graduate school, etc. — are graduating. And everyone, except for doctoral students, has to wear the mortarboard. Which is, objectively, a ridiculous hat. So why are thousands of students struggling to keep these monstrosities on their heads this month?
In a lot of commencement programs, there is a section explaining the outfits worn by graduates and the school's faculty. Because everything people wear is part of a code that can be deciphered to reveal what degree a person has and where they got it. Undergrads wear the plain robe that is what likely comes to mind when you think of robes. Masters robes have square bits on the sleeves. And doctoral robes have cuffed sleeves, three velvet stripes on the sleeves, and velvet stripes down the front. Presumably, this is an attempt to melt doctoral students, by making them wear the heaviest possible robe during an event that takes place close to summer.
Masters and doctoral students wear hoods, with doctoral degrees granting longer hoods (again, doctoral graduates have the most fabric). The inside of the hood has colors reflecting the degree-granting institution and the velvet part of the hood is in a color that indicates what field the degree is in. For example, business degrees in the United States are officially denoted by the color "drab."
And then there's the hat. According to the Academic Costume Code:
Material Cotton poplin, broadcloth, rayon, or silk, to match gown are to be used; for the doctor's degree only, velvet.
Form Mortarboards are generally recommended.
Tassel A long tassel is to be fastened to the middle point of the top of the cap only and to lie as it will thereon. The tassel should be black or the color appropriate to the subject, with the exception of the doctor's cap that may have a tassel of gold.
'Mortarboards are generally recommended.'' This is a hat that consists of a hard square attached to a skullcap. It is not comfortable, easy to wear, or particularly good-looking. So why is it the recommended hat of the Academic Costume Code?
The Origins of the Mortarboard
Even the name of this thing isn't complimentary. Two things are called "mortarboards": the square boards that masons use to hold mortar, and the hats that looks like them. And the hat that students are forced to wear was probably more useful as a building tool. How it got that way is a tale of escalating hat size. First, academics and the clergy wore skullcaps. Then they added a slightly squared hat to the top. Then they started getting bigger, to show allegiance to the church. The clergy kept the seams that put a cross on the top of the hat, while the secular groups flattened the shape into what we see today.
The hat has its origins in the cap worn by the clergy to protect their heads. In the academic setting, caps were worn only by "doctors in the superior faculties," which meant divinity and law, which were pretty intertwined back then. So was education — which explains the back-and-forth hat innovation that followed.
Originally, the academic hat was the pileus, a skullcap with a point at the crown. In the thirteenth century, the pileus started to merge with the clergy's barret cap, which was taller and squarer than the pileus. Over time, the clergy moved to wearing the "biretta," which was even more exaggerated in its proportions than the barret cap and worn over a skullcap.
So the pileus was well on its way to squared splendor. In early Tudor times, doctors started wearing the pileus quadratus, which, as the name implies, was square. At the time, those with lower degrees started wearing the pileus rotundus, the round version. In some schools, the round hat survives — but not here in the United States.