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The Startling Truth Behind Graduation Caps

Writer: Molly O’Rourke


Over the last few weeks, the UCC Autumn Conferrings have been taking place on campus. It is difficult to ignore the buzz of excitement from the graduating students as they celebrate the day with family and friends. We see them bravely taking a step onto the quad to mark the momentous occasion, posing in groups with their parchments on proud display. It is a heart-warming event to watch, and a reminder for most of what is to come. As a final year student, I have been taking more notice this year than any previous ones; gathering ideas for an outfit and thinking of venues for a family lunch. One thing that I have noticed, however, is the absence of graduation caps, (or mortarboards), on male heads. Initially, I thought it strange that it was only female graduates wearing the black caps; surely with their elegant hairstyles, this was impractical? After mentioning it to my father, I discovered the real reason behind this.

Last year, my older brother graduated from the NMCI in Ringaskiddy. Within his small class of around 40 students, only one girl was graduating. This is normal for the Maritime College; merchant shipping is a male-dominated industry. Thinking it was strange that the female graduate was the sole person wearing a cap, my father asked a few people why this was the case and he was surprised to hear that it was a shocking symbol of sexual inequality in Ireland. It is thought that women wear the graduation cap as a symbol of the end of their education, it is now “capped”. While this may just be an urban myth passed from generation to generation, it is heard often enough to make one wonder: does it have some social standing? I have not found the source of this statement, despite its ubiquity, and officially the wearing of a hat seems to refer back to societal rules around 1904.  This year saw the first female students admitted to Trinity College in Dublin. Social etiquette at this time required men to remove their headgear when indoors as a sign of respect, (this tradition dates back to medieval times, when knights removed their helmets in order to be identified). On the other hand, women wore hats as decorative pieces and due to the time and number of pins required to put on a lady’s hat, taking it off indoors seemed impractical. Like many other traditions in Ireland, the Catholic church had some influence over this social norm. Men are expected to remove hats in places of worship, as a mark of respect and to avoid “dishonouring” his head, while women are required to remain covered during acts of worship.

This archaic and senseless code of decorum has no standing in today’s society. We should be free to wear whatever we want, no matter our gender. Around the world, graduation attire differs from country to country. In the US, both male and female graduates sport the mortarboards, while Italians wear a wreath of laurel around their heads. Other countries don’t follow any traditions or customs, and students are free to create their own customs. Traditions are often created deliberately to enhance the importance of a certain institution and can be changed as society evolves. Why must Irish graduations highlight this display of sexist inequality, that dates back to a time of injustice and discrimination against women? Surely graduates, who are the future of Ireland, have the power to change this primitive custom?

With recent feminist and equality movements, it is becoming more and more common for graduating women to abandon the black mortarboard and wear only the gown. I have not heard of this being an issue in our university, however, students in the University of Limerick and Trinity College have been told they will not be granted access to the ceremony without a cap. UCC’s stance on the matter is one of choice, with their website stating “The wearing of hats as part of conferring attire is entirely optional in University College Cork. The university directs students to decide on the wearing of the hat entirely as a matter of personal choice, without prejudice.” If the cap is entirely optional, shouldn’t male graduates also be given the opportunity to wear a cap? Although McKinley Academic Dress, UCC’s gown providers, does allow male graduates to rent a hat if they so wish, they explained that it is not very common, (although some do choose to wear a hat for photos). Other gown rental companies do not allow male graduates to rent a cap, stating that men would have to take it off indoors, and the item is more likely to be damaged if it is being around all day. With the token ‘optional for all’ being spouted by UCC, the contrast between bare male heads and covered female heads on campus is only more noticeable.

The number of female graduates wearing caps is still immense; many students do not want to be “the odd one out” among their friends, as it is the custom to wear a hat. Girls tossing their caps in the air for an Instagram shot is a common sight and leads me to believe that many don’t know the history behind the Irish mortarboards. It may seem like a small issue to some, a simple article of clothing on a hugely important day doesn’t seem that important, but it is another out-dated and unnecessary distinction between the sexes. I personally won’t be wearing a cap for my 2020 graduation ceremony, as I do not believe anyone should have their education or potential ‘capped’.