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The History of the Graduation Gown

As graduates don their caps and gowns, ready to embark on the next chapter of their lives, there’s much to know about the rich history behind this attire.

Muslim woman in red hijab graduating
Image Credit: Zurijeta/Shutterstock

Few are aware of the historical origins behind the traditional graduation gown and hat, which have been shaped by the influences of the Islamic Golden Age and Arab culture.

The First University

The world’s first and oldest university was founded in 859 by a Muslim woman called Fatima Al-Fahri in Fez, Morocco. It was named Al-Qarawiyyan University, and it offered students the opportunity to study religion, history, medicine, music, mathematics and many more areas of study.

Al-Qarawiyyan University became popular among students from as far as Europe, for its unique teaching styles and endless learning opportunities. It was here that the graduation gown originated from.

Other Universities

In 1088, the first university in Europe was founded in Italy by Muslims, who treated the institution as an extension of Islamic universities in the East. Similar universities were also founded sometime later in Granada and Seville; Spain.

Other universities in Spain, Tunisia and Egypt, followed suit of the Islamic institutions and operated as they did. This included having a similar graduation gown, inspired by Arab culture.

The Islamic Golden Age

The Islamic Golden Age was a period from the mid-7th to the mid-13th century. During this time, the Muslim empire was established and it flourished. Muslim artists, doctors, scholars and many other professionals from all around the world made great impacts on and contributed to the technology and knowledge of the time. Much of the knowledge we have today comes from the foundations of what they discovered, including in mathematics and medicine.

It was during this Golden Age period that many universities were founded, as knowledge and education were highly regarded. Having medicine students qualify as doctors was also introduced in this time: universities would give diplomas to finishing students so they could go on to become practitioners.

For these students, graduation ceremonies would include them dressing in the modest thobe-like graduation robe.

The Graduation Gown

So, where is today’s graduation gown from, and where did it take its inspiration?

Three graduating students lining up
Image Credit: XiXinXing/Shutterstock

When students from the West would graduate from Islamic universities, and other institutions, they would wear the thobe-like graduation gown, to show they had graduated from a Muslim university. This was to mimic what the scholars would wear, that some say symbolized success.

This was heavily influenced by Arab culture, whose traditional dress is the thobe; a long, loose, modest shirt-like dress.

The Thobe

The thobe, which traces back to ancient Arabia, was adapted during the Islamic Golden Age. It was made using better quality material and high collars to provide protection from the sun. Worn by scholars and students, this adaptation allowed them to study outside in the heat.

Eventually, this style spread far and wide, and although the graduation gown we have today isn’t identical to the thobe, it is very similar as it originates from it. This is why we have the graduation robes that we have today!

Medieval History of Academic Dress

Throughout history, the graduation gown has been adapted and changed. At one point, there was a gown with a cloak to be worn on top, but in the 16th century, Cambridge and Oxford made the change of having the gown alone.

Hoods and capes were also introduced to the graduation robe at one point, and the liripipe, a flat hood, remains today. This is often seen in a variety of colors to signify which area of study students are graduating in.

More information about the history of the Medieval academic dress, specifically at Oxford and Cambridge, can be found here.

liripipe graduation gown
Image Credit: Anna Jurkovska/Shutterstock

The Hat and Tassel

The hat and tassel even have meaning behind them from an Islamic perspective.

The flat-top hats are said to symbolize the Qur’an, and go above the head to symbolize the importance of the holy book over human intellect.

In addition, the tassel imitates a bookmark that would traditionally be used to mark the page where students were reading from in the Qur’an.

It is clear to see that the Muslim world has had a great historical impact on the West through graduation attire and education.

Are you graduating at the end of the year? Here are 6 tips for planning a graduation celebration.

Written By

Journalism student

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