collage of three images of decorated mortarboards on graduates' heads

The Mortarboard: Canvas for Self-Expression

Big Red graduates have long festooned their caps with personal messages, political statements, artistic decorations, and more

By Joe Wilensky

Measuring just over nine inches square, the graduation cap—also known as a mortarboard—has for decades been used as a miniature canvas for self-expression.

a decorated mortarboard on the head of a graduate at Commencement
The cap décor can be meaningful—or simply whimsical. (Photo by Cornell University)

Often, they’re simple: hand-lettered, masking-tape missives comprising Greek letters, inside jokes, or call-outs to friends and family.

They can be provocative—in the form of political statements, philosophical musings, even wry commentary on the cost of a college education.

The most artistic and/or ambitious grads create elaborate, three-dimensional sculptures that defy gravity atop the wearer’s cranium.

“I’ve seen many creative designs over the years—many sparkly designs; words thanking family members or asking for money or jobs; detailed, intricate 3D objects,” says Connie Mabry, who has directed the Office of University Commencement Events since 1989. “They’re truly masterful art pieces.”

The graduation cap itself dates back centuries. The mortarboard, paired with gown, originated in Europe around the 15th century—having evolved from the “biretta,” a peaked, tufted cap worn by Catholic clergy and scholars.

They’re truly masterful art pieces.

Connie Mabry

On the Hill, bedecking one’s mortarboard has been officially sanctioned for years; decorating sessions, complete with supplies, are even held during Senior Week.

But overall, the phenomenon is relatively recent—and as longtime faculty member Glenn Altschuler, PhD ’76, observes, for about the University’s first century, graduation on the Hill was a buttoned-down affair.

collage of three images of decorated mortarboards on graduates' heads
Mortarboards can reflect a grad’s studies, passions, or Big Red spirit. (Photos by Cornell University)

“Commencements at Cornell, and other colleges and universities, were almost always staid and scripted,” says Altschuler, the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies.

“By the 1960s—in response to the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and critiques of corporatization and ‘outer-directed’ Americans—students began to incorporate, display, and celebrate individual and group identity.”

By the 1960s, students began to incorporate, display, and celebrate individual and group identity.

Glenn Altschuler, PhD ’76

Across the country, dress codes began to loosen—and that extended to commencement ceremonies. The first mortarboard decoration to appear with regularity was likely the peace sign, created with tape to protest the war.

In 1970, a “committee of concerned seniors” at Cornell organized a concerted effort to eschew graduation regalia altogether. Ultimately, the University chose not to enforce a dress code.

And while the vast majority of marchers opted for traditional garb, the door had opened to evolving interpretations of graduation fashion—and the mortarboard became an outlet for personalization.


Scroll down for a gallery of mortarboard art from Commencements past! (All photos by Cornell University)

a decorated mortarboard on the head of a graduate at Commencement
graduates hold their decorated mortarboards at Commencement
a decorated mortarboard on the head of a graduate at Commencement
a decorated mortarboard on the head of a graduate at Commencement
a graduate adjusts a "CU"-decorated mortarboard on the head of a Guiding Eyes for the Blind dog at Commencement
a decorated mortarboard on the head of a graduate at Commencement
a graduate displays a decorated mortarboard at Commencement
a decorated mortarboard on the head of a graduate at Commencement
a decorated mortarboard on the head of a graduate at Commencement
mortarboard cap decorating in Willard Straight Hall
decorated mortarboards on the heads of graduates at Commencement

Top image: A mortarboard collage. (Photos by Cornell University)

Published May 26, 2022


Comments

  1. Cindy Fuller, Class of 1978

    My mother asked me after my graduation in 1978, “Why didn’t you decorate your cap? I could have found you in the crowd.”

  2. Mary Gidley Gregg, Class of 1969

    I don’t recall many decorated caps at graduation in 1969. But I had broken my arm just before commencement and acquired several bright colored slings to wear. Several of my friends told their parents to “watch for the girl with the hot pink sling” and there they (and I) would be.

  3. slip, Class of 1990

    in 1990 it was not super common.
    my fraternity graduated 20+ guys and my mortarboard was only one decorated. in my hotellie group about 20% had deco – i was a culinary focused guy and the dreaded ladle question was the punchline of my 4 years so i had a ladle and a commercial spatula on my cap.

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