A History of the Graduation Cap

The square graduation cap, or ‘mortarboard’, has become a widely used symbol of academia and learning across the globe. Here, Churchill Gowns Director of Operations, Ruth Nicholls, explores the origins and development of this unusual looking hat.

When you think about the square academic cap you probably think of a symbol of achievement and learning. It is so synonymous with graduation ceremonies that even students at universities which don’t use the cap often want to hire one anyway to have their photos taken! But have you ever stopped to consider what an odd looking thing it is and just how it came to be worn for graduations?

Development of the Mortarboard Shape

The cap has been described as a ‘mortarboard’ in recent years owing to its flat shape, which resembles the flat ‘hawk board’ used by builders for holding their plaster or mortar. However, the academic cap actually originates from a different style of cap called a ‘biretta’.

The biretta was a tall round cap, first used by Roman Catholic clergy in Italy in the middle ages. The shape then evolved to have a seam up four sides, creating a square shape with corners. In 1583 Philip Stubbes wrote that this shape symbolised ‘the whole monarchy of the world, east, west, north and south, the government of which standeth upon them as the cap doth upon their heads’. Over time the biretta fell into wider use and became popular students, as well as clergy, as it was viewed as a symbol of learning and scholarship.

The shape of the biretta cap was gradually adapted in some countries, including Britain, with the flat square section on top becoming wider and more angular until it eventually came to resemble the modern-day mortarboard. The first official record of the shape was a patent application made in the USA 1950 for the invention of inserting a fibreglass stiffener into the cap, although we know the mortarboard existed long before this date because there are photographs of graduates wearing it in the 1800s.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, wearing a biretta square cap, similar in shape to the modern day mortarboard

Modern Use of the Academic Cap

In many European countries, including Spain and Italy, the biretta is still used as an academic cap, as an alternative to the mortarboard that is used in Britain, the USA and elsewhere. The design of the mortarboard itself continues to evolve, with softer caps introduced in recent years to give a more comfortable fit, and the recent introduction of caps designed to fit over a headscarf being offered at some universities.

Left: a female graduate in the Victorian era wearing a modern style mortarboard. Right: honorary graduates at the University of Bologna in Italy, still which still uses a biretta style cap for some graduates.

When you and your mates do a celebratory mortarboard toss at your graduation ceremony, take a moment to remember its long history and the academic tradition you are now a part of!