Spring is a special time of year for many reasons. While the season signals new beginnings with fresh flowers, it’s also a time for endings, such as the end of the school year.

Preschoolers graduate to kindergarten. Elementary students graduate to middle school. Middle school students graduate to high school. High school students graduate and follow life’s trail to college or the working world.

Graduation is a joyous time to celebrate the milestone of academic achievement. It’s a time for family and friends to gather together to show how proud they are of what the graduates have accomplished.

The graduation ceremony is a rite of passage that creates lifelong memories. If you’ve ever attended a graduation ceremony or seen pictures of one, you’ve surely noticed that everyone seems to be wearing the same outfit.

And it’s not your normal everyday clothes, either. So what’s the deal with the robes and the funny hats?

Those funny hats are called “mortarboards” because they resemble a tool used by bricklayers to hold mortar. In some areas, they’re also called “square academic caps” or “Oxford caps.” The mortarboard consists of a flat, square board attached to a skullcap, with a tassel buttoned to the center.

Scholars believe the mortarboard is based on the biretta, a similar hat worn by Roman Catholic clergy. The biretta was commonly worn in the 14th and 15th centuries by students and artists.

Mortarboards are paired with robes to form the traditional graduation outfit known as “cap and gown.” Formal or “dress” clothing, such as a suit, is usually worn beneath the gown because graduation ceremonies are considered special occasions worthy of formal dress.

The cap and gown combination can be traced back to the academic and clerical dress commonly worn at the medieval universities of Europe.

These early universities didn’t have buildings, so students would usually meet at churches. Since these churches were unheated, historians believe students wore long gowns and caps for warmth.

Some children are curious about the tassels that hang from mortarboards. In some cases, the color of the tassel matches school colors. At other times, special tassel colors are used to represent particular degrees, subject areas or achievements.

It has become a tradition at many schools for all graduates to wear the tassel on one side until receiving their diplomas. After the graduating class is announced, the students then switch the tassel to the other side. After switching their tassel, many graduates also toss their caps into the air to celebrate.

The hat-tossing tradition got started in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1912. That year, students at the U.S. Naval Academy became officers for the first time (instead of having to serve two more years as midshipmen) and flung their hats into the air spontaneously.

Since that time, the tradition continued each year, and it has become a ritual at schools — even elementary schools — everywhere!


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    • You bet, ToreyR! We know you will miss Mrs. Caplin…she is an AWESOME teacher and a GREAT friend of Wonderopolis! We look forward to seeing more comments from you over the summer! :-)

  1. I love the fact that you used a graduation topic today, because it is the end of the year and many students are graduating, including MC’s class and me. We graduated yesterday and it was very emotional.

    I never knew that those hats were called mortarboards. I bet they are called that because suffix is “board,” and the top of the hat kind of looks like a board.

    I think that tomorrow’s Wonder is about car racing because racecars are very fast, and the object of racing race cars in to get to the finish line. I will check back tomorrow to see if my prediction is correct! :)

    • Hello, Meredith! Congratulations on graduating from Mrs. C’s class! You all did so many fun things this year and learned so much! Let us hear from you this summer…we hope you visit Wonderopolis often. Did you know we have something super cool planned for our Wonder Friends this summer? Stay tuned to see what it is! :-)

  2. Hooray for my girls-yes it was emotional but you both are ready for middle school. Keep checking the wonders and we’ll never lose track of each other this summer. Isn’t this an amazing WONDER and just perfect for our class!!!

    • We agree, Maria! But, now we’re getting a little teary-eyed here in Wonderopolis! Graduation is an important milestone. It means we are growing and ready to learn more, more, more!

      We really appreciate all the great comments and questions from you and your SUPER students this year…you are ALL ambassadors for WONDER! :-)

  3. I think
    It’s awesome that you did a topic on that!! My older sister just graduated from highschool this morning and my sister and I were wondering what those hats were called and what they were worn for! Thanks!!

    • We’re so glad to hear that you learned something new from this Wonder, Tori! Ideas for Wonders of the Day are born from questioning…just like you did when you “WONDERed” about what your sister’s graduation hat was called! :-)

  4. This seems really interesting! We have always WONDERED why they wore them and what they were called!

    We thought it was interesting how you could find so many interesting facts about why graduates wear these funny mortarboard hats! We think it is really detailed with a lot of vocabulary.

    We actually did not have any idea about these hats. We just knew they meant that you are graduating, and you are becoming more mature with this miraculous milestone.

    We have been to a number of graduations and still had pretty much no idea what mortarboard hats were called what they are.
    Do you know why the robes cover the fancy outfits?

    • That’s a really awesome question, Bailey, Sumayah and Jade! People like to get dressed up and wear fancy clothes to graduation because it is a “special occasion” in their lives and they want to look their best! The robes cover everything up so that all the graduates have a similar appearance. By wearing the robes and mortarboards, they are saying they belong with their “class” of graduating students!

    • We’re glad you learned more about something you’ve always WONDERed about, Ellen! Thanks for stopping by this Wonder of the Day®! :-)

    • We bet you would look AWESOME dressed as a graduate, Amoolya! Thank you for leaving us such AMAZING comments today! It’s been fun seeing which Wonders have caught your attention! :-)

  5. Hello,

    When I watched my brother’s graduation and all of my cousins’, all that I was wondering was why they were wearing those hats! So, when I saw this wonder, I was really excited! Two new words I learned mortarboard and rite. I learned that the throwing of the hats was started in Maryland in 1912. I also learned that scholars believe that the hats got started by birettas, worn by Roman Catholics. I wonder why people chose moving the tassel from one side to another after graduating, instead of doing something else?


    • We’re glad you got to learn a little more about mortarboards today by exploring this Wonder, Team Unger 10! Thanks for sharing that you were WONDERing about them after all the awesome family graduations you’ve watched! :-)

  6. My sister Katie is graduating from Dublin Coffman high school and she is going to Ohio State University and she is graduating from high school on June 2nd and I am going. She is having her party in a couple of weeks, but I don’t know when. But she got an award for good grades!

    • Congratulations to your sister for her awesome achievements and to your family for supporting her, Ally! How exciting that you get to attend her graduation. Now you will know all about milestones and mortarboards! We bet your parents will appreciate hearing the cool new facts you learned about graduation by exploring this Wonder of the Day®! :-)

  7. Ya, I agreed with you that graduation is a milestone to achieve in our academic career. Thanks to for your wonderful sharing.

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Why do graduates wear funny hats?
  • What is a mortarboard?
  • Why do graduates toss their caps in the air?

Wonder Gallery

Graduate_shutterstock_51193606Vimeo Video

Try It Out

Do you have a special academic achievement you’d like to celebrate? Remember: You can celebrate your graduation from each grade every year!

If you want to celebrate in style, make your own mortarboard to wear! With just a few simple supplies, you, too, can wear your own “funny hat” to celebrate your achievements.

Sometimes even dolls and stuffed animals need to graduate and must have a “funny hat.” Here are some cute miniature mortarboards that would make special graduation keepsakes for dolls or stuffed animals!


Still Wondering

Mortar boards aren’t the only interesting creation with special ceremonial meaning. Visit EDSITEment to learn The Meaning Behind the Mask!


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