Graduates each spring reach for their mortarboards and, in an act that seems to defy the very rigors of academia, jovially toss them sky high in celebration of their achievement. Last year, university lawns and high school auditoriums alike sat silent on commencement day, with graduates receiving their honors at a distance due to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the globe. Though many were lauded in virtual ceremonies, nothing compares to that feeling of mightily tossing a cap alongside fellow graduates after accepting a hard-earned diploma, and the world grieved for these lost moments.
According to TIME, graduates have worn caps and gowns for commencement ceremonies since the earliest European universities were founded by clergy in the 12th and 13th centuries. These gowns were often black or brown, the differing colors signifying the student’s religious status and setting them apart from the lay people of the villages in which they studied. The style of the hats evolved, changing in size and shape over the centuries. The original hats resembled everything from early American aviation caps to a shorter version of the modern chef’s hat. The square caps we know today made their debut in the 16th century. These are often referred to as mortarboards, so nicknamed for resembling the square tray bricklayers use when applying mortar. Soon round and square caps marked a student’s level of education, and many modern law, medicine, and philosophy grads still wear rounded caps, known as the pileus quadratus.
American students have since added their own touches to the graduation cap ritual. According to National Geographic, a century ago grads started moving their tassel from the cap’s right side to the left to mark their commencement. In 1912, members of the graduating class of the U.S. Naval Academy tossed their midshipmen hats after being ceremoniously handed their new officer hats. Thus, a tradition was born and newly minted alums have celebrated in the Naval Academy fashion across the country ever since. Cheers for the graduates around the country who will once again toss their caps high into the sky this year — here’s to the Class of 2021!