The UK graduation cap, or UK mortarboard, is highly recognizable, but few understand the illustrious history behind its design. Whether for the religious or academic ceremony, the UK graduation cap has a rich history, as well as a plethora of variations in style.
The Basic Design of a UK Graduation Cap An academic cap, sometimes also called a square or a mortarboard, is a modern symbol of academia. Depending on the university, it may be worn by either graduates or undergraduates. It is easily recognized by its flattened square shape and a suspended tassel attached to a button on the center-top of the board. When worn according to proper tradition, the cap is horizontally parallel with the ground, while some—especially women— choose to wear it at a backward angle.
The flat board is sometimes called the trencher cap, or trencher. The tassel is made up of many silk threads clustered and fixed together, fastened with a button on the end which is attached to the headpiece’s center. Loose strands may freely fall over the edge of the board, usually to the front left. Strands are often plaited together, forming a cord with end threads untied.
Other Types of UK Mortarboard Hats
The cap may also be used in times of mourning, such as for family and friends. Rather than implementing a buttoned tassel, this variation implements two large ribbons drawn into an X-shape from corner to corner across the cap. A ribbon rosette is attached to the intersection of the X-shape. Sometimes, nine “butterfly” ribbons are placed at the back of the wearer’s skull to denote mourning, specifically of the Sovereign, a Royal Family member, or a University Chancellor.
Using UK Graduation Caps For Classification Doctors often wear a rounded, soft headpiece called the Tudor bonnet, or a tam, instead of the trencher. Other varieties of hats appear, especially throughout the UK. Examples include the John Knox cap, primarily with Scottish universities; the Bishop Andrewes Cap, a redesign of an ancient mortarboard now donned on Cambridge DDs; or the pileus, worn at Sussex. Women may don the Oxford ladies’ cap, one such example being at Oxford.
A traditional biretta is sometimes worn rather than a mortarboard among Catholic, and sometimes Anglican, clergy. Clerics holding a doctorate often wear this black cap, and their design is distinguished by four ridges rather than three, with pom and piping denoting their study. For example, emerald denotes canon law while scarlet denotes sacred theology, and so on.
The UK Mortarboard and Urban Legends Like most types of headgear, academic caps typically are not worn by men indoors in the Commonwealth, except for by Chancellors and high officials. In the event the wearer moves indoors, the hat is carried. In some ceremonies, caps are no longer worn by men, and are only worn by women, for whom wearing the cap indoors is acceptable. Some graduation ceremonies have completely abandoned the cap, leading to a popular urban legend in the UK and Ireland that not wearing the cap began as a protest against the admission of female members to universities.
This tale is relayed at Durham University, University of Cambridge, University of Bristol, Trinity College of Dublin, and the University of St Andrews among many others. Newcastle University has a similar tale, in which graduates from Durham University threw away their hats to the River Tyne as an act of independence.
Misunderstanding over regulations has contributed to the confusion. For example, Open University no longer prescribes headwear for graduation ceremonies. Likewise, others have done away with the cap for socio-political purposes, or due to designer intent, as with Vivienne Westwood’s design for the ceremonies of King’s College London.
Indeed, designer influence can be another monumental factor in how caps are worn, if at all. The University of East Anglia, for example, features two hat designs created by designer Cecil Beaton. The first, called the “Dan Dare” or sometimes the “Mickey Mouse,” is a narrow-rimmed skull cap. The second is referred to as a tricorn, or an inverted iron. This design is a basic mortarboard, however it features a triangular rather than square shape for masters. This latter cap proved unpopular with the student body, whose preference for the traditional square shape led to a practical disuse of caps. Indeed, it is exceedingly rare to ever see an undergraduate gown or cap at University of East Anglia, though the Dan Dare is technically still prescribed. Nonetheless, tricorns can still be seen on the Registrar, as it is the official hat for this official.