Why Are Mortar Boards Square?
The square academic cap, graduate cap, cap, mortarboard (because of its similarity in appearance to the hawk used by bricklayers to hold mortar) or Oxford cap, is an item of academic dress consisting of a horizontal square board fixed upon a skull-cap, with a tassel attached to the centre.
In the UK and the US, it is commonly referred to informally in conjunction with an academic gown, as a “cap and gown.” It is also sometimes termed a square, trencher, or corner-cap. The adjective academical is also used.
The cap, together with the gown and (sometimes) a hood, now form the customary uniform of a university graduate, in many parts of the world, following a British model.
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.
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!