How to wear your graduation cap and gown

Graduation is one of the most important days of your life. You’ve dedicated time, money and possibly some tears into earning your degree and you want it to be a special occasion. But what should you wear and how will your hat stay on? Do not panic, we’ll take you through how to wear your graduation cap and gown with our top tips for graduation dress success and a short history of this ancient outfit.


What to wear underneath



Most men choose a classic black or grey lounge suit with a dress shirt and tie. Shoes should match the suit and check the colour of the graduation gown first to make sure your tie does not clash.


Women usually opt for a dress or a blouse and skirt combination. Choose your shoes carefully. It is important to remember that you may have to walk up stairs onto a stage and back down again in front of hundreds of people. Select a pair of medium height block or wedge heels.


Ulster University graduation

Ulster University graduation


Top Wardrobe Tips

  1. Hoods may need to be pinned or buttoned to a shirt/blouse or jacket, so it is a good idea for men to wear a buttoned shirt.

  2. Carry a few safety pins to secure your hood and hair grips to secure your cap.

  3. Choose the material of your shirt/outfit carefully. Gowns can be heavy so avoid silky materials as the gown can slip off your shoulders.

  4. Avoid extreme fashion styles. Your graduation photo will be on display for a long time.

  5. Keep your hairstyle relatively simple, graduation caps do not accommodate ‘big’ hairstyles.

  6. Most importantly, consider the weather. If you are graduating in the summer, wear lightweight clothes so you don’t overheat under the gown. An umbrella may also be a welcome addition for before and after the ceremony.


Choosing your gown and cap size


Gown sizes

Gown sizes are based on height and do not relate to clothing sizes. The table below shows which size of gown fits each height according to Ulster University graduation attire.


Height Code
Up to 5’3″ (162cm) A
5’4″ to 5’7″ (163 to 172cm) B
5’8″ to 5’11” (173 to 182cm) C
6’0″ (182cm) and over D
Ulster University graduation

Ulster University graduation

Cap sizes and how to measure your head

Position a measuring tape horizontally around the circumference of your head, above the eyebrows and slightly above the ears. With the tape held closely to your head take the measurement. The table below converts this measurement into a hat size.


Head size in Inches Head size in Cms Hat size Code
20 7/8” 53 6 ½ E
21 ¼” 54 6 5/8 F
21 5/8” 55 6 ¾ G
22” 56 6 7/8 H
22 3/8” 57 7 I
22 7/8” 58 7 1/8 J
23 ¼” 59 7 ¼ K
23 5/8” 60 7 3/8 L
24” 61 7 ½ M
24 3/8” 62 7 5/8 N
24 7/8” 63 7 ¾ O
25 ¼” 64 7 7/8 P
25 5/8” 65 8 Q

A short history of academic dress


The wearing of the academic gown began as a necessity rather than an official rite of passage.

The graduation gown has evolved over the centuries but is a throwback to ancient universities and their relationship with the church.  In the early 12th century, universities were cold places and students and scholars required practical and modest clothing to remain warm. The scholars, who were usually clerics, wore long robes with a hood.

Gradually, more comfortable robes were introduced although the colour remained plain and was most commonly black. Colours weren’t assigned to  subjects/levels until the late 1800s, usually varying from country to country and university to university.

Different styles and colours of gown signify the level of award: undergraduate and postgraduate. The undergraduate gown is the most common, usually a knee length gown with bell shaped sleeves. The postgraduate gown commonly has longer sleeves closed at the end with a small slit above the elbow for the arms. PhD gowns may be red and more ornate in styling.


The hood was originally developed as a functional garment to protect the wearer from the elements. Over time it has been incorporated into the academic dress. The colour and lining of the hood represents the rank and/or faculty of the wearer.


Also developed in the medieval period, the cap has become a symbol of academia. The cap’s official name is ‘mortarboard’. This stems from the resemblance in shape to the flat board used by bricklayers to hold mortar. The wearing of the hat was compulsory for clergy in 1311. The hats later became popular in the 14th and 15th centuries among ‘learned people’ such as artists, humanists and students. At this time the cap then became part of the standard dress for scholars.


The tradition of students throwing their hats in the air when they graduate is a relatively new phenomenon. The first known instance of this was in 1912 at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. This was because the Academy presented the students with their officers’ hats at the ceremony, so upon graduation the graduates threw their midshipmen’s caps in the air and ceremoniously put their officers’ hats on.

Ulster University Graduation

Ulster University Graduation

Find out more on what to wear to graduation. Also for those interested in watching the graduation ceremonies, we will have a live stream everyday. For more information please visit Ulster University Graduations.


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