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The Sash Company Blog

Where we share all things sash & stole!

The Sash Company Blog

Where we share all things sash & stole!

The Most Common Graduation Traditions in Western Culture Explained

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We’ve all been there. It’s the end of an era, you’re surrounded by friends and family, you’re brimming with great memories, and the always famous Graduation Song by Vitamin C is playing: “As we goooo onnnnn, we reeeememberrrrr”. Parents are crying and taking way too many pictures that they’ll send to your entire family, you’re laughing and hugging your friends… you’re nervous, you’re excited, you’re graduating.

If you’re curious, you’ve probably wondered why we all follow these specific graduation traditions at high school and college ceremonies. What’s the meaning behind tassels and gowns, honor cords, commencement addresses, graduation sashes, and tossing your cap in the air… why are we all following these specific graduation traditions?

The Sash Company has created high-quality graduation sashes for over 20 years and in that time, we’ve been gown-deep in graduation traditions. So we’ve taken the liberty to explain some of these graduation traditions and even added a little bit about the history of each tradition where we can.

The Graduation Ceremony

Cultures all over the world have specific traditions that symbolize change. There are ceremonies for manhood and womanhood, ceremonies for marriage, ceremonies for newborn babies, and even ceremonies before long journeys.

And in that same way, graduation ceremonies symbolize change. The ceremony is conducted to show that the student has grown from the experience and is now recognized as an educated scholar.

Pomp & Circumstance

Speaking of traditional graduation songs, Vitamin C is the most well known modern graduation song, but Pomp and Circumstance is a classic.

If you don’t recognize the song name, don’t worry, you will recognize the tune. You can listen to Pomp and Cictumsance here.

The song was written but Sir Edward Elgar in 1901 and is also known as Land of Hope & Glory. Elgar originally wrote the song to celebrate the crowning of King Edward VII. When Elgar later graduated from Yale in 1905, Pomp and Circumstance was played at his graduation ceremony… and thus another gradation tradition was born.

It quickly became fashionable to play the song at all graduation ceremonies and the song went, well, viral. Of course, there was no social media back then so it took a little longer to reach all the educational institutes in the country.

Why The Cap & Gown?

Sure we all know we have to wear a cap and gown to our graduation ceremony but why?

Well, it all goes back to the Middle Ages. Graduates used to wear their cap and gown around town, even after graduation. They would wear a cap and gown so that everyone who saw them could identify them as educated scholars.

It’s the modern day equivalent of wearing a shirt with the name of the college where you graduated. It was a symbol of their status and it showed everyone that they were highly educated.

The colors of your cap and gown are typically black, but some schools will use other colors to differentiate themselves from other schools.

Thankfully these days we only wear a cap and gown at the ceremony and after that, we can go back to our casual wear.

Honor Cords, Hoods & Stoles

We’ve already covered what the colors of the graduations stoles mean, which is actually quite interesting, so we won’t delve into that too much here. But generally, why do we wear honor cords and stoles at a graduation ceremony, and what’s the significance of both?

Caps and gowns signify that you have graduated and that you are an educated scholar. Cords and stoles signify your level of education and your specific area of expertise. That’s why certain color stoles are given to graduates in specific disciplines.

  • White stoles - arts and humanities
  • Green - medical graduates
  • Orange - engineering

You can learn more about what each stole color means here and the history of the graduation stoles here.

The Rolled Diploma Sheepskin

Have you ever heard someone refer to a diploma as a sheepskin? If you have then this graduation tradition will interest you.

Over 100 years ago, diplomas were actually printed on a form of paper made from sheepskin to ensure they lasted a lifetime. Before the invention of modern paper, sheepskin was a great textile to use for printing.

These sheepskin diplomas were rolled and then awarded to the graduate when they cross the stage.

Thankfully, we no longer use sheepskins to print diplomas and instead keep them in binders or frames to protect them for decades. But the awarding of diplomas is still done on stage with a temporary, rolled piece of paper.

Why The Flowers?

Flowers have always been a tradition associated with celebrations. In the distant past, flowers were used the same way we use perfume or cologne. Flowers were a naturally pleasant smell that didn’t come in a can.

And flowers are a gesture of caring we often see in Western cultures. We give flowers to our loved ones on Valentine's Day, on Mother's Day, and flowers are a big deal at weddings.

So, of course, we have to give flowers to graduates as well! Giving flowers at a graduation ceremony is simply a gesture of love and appreciation. There is no long-standing or necessarily historically significant reason to give flowers to a graduate other than that show of appreciation.

The Turning of The Tassel

That title might be a great name for a band or coming-of-age book. We’ll have to keep that in mind.

In the United States, tassels are worn on the right side of the wearer’s cap, then moved to the left side to indicate they have graduated. Importantly, the tassel only moves when you graduate from high school or when you receive your undergraduate degree. For master's degrees and Doctorates, your tassel remains on the left side of your cap.

The movement signifies changes and shows the rest of the world that the graduate has achieved a higher level of education.

In the Middle Ages, an older form of the tassel called a pom was worn by members of the church to signify their position in the hierarchy of the church. It was then adopted by those clever people who graduated from Oxford and Cambridge centuries later, and now we see tassels at many graduation ceremonies in Western Cultures.

Although tassels are not always required, students who like to participate in graduation traditions will typically get their tassel and sometimes even customize it.

Tossing of the Cap

If you asked any foreigner what they know about American graduation traditions, they will eventually talk about seeing students toss their graduation caps into the air at the end of the ceremony.

This is a graduation tradition that is specific to the United States and began in the US Naval Academy over a hundred years ago in 1912.

See, before 1912, all naval midshipmen were required to wear caps at all times as part of their dress code. But, in 1912, the decision was made to promote all graduates from that point forward to officers upon graduation, no longer requiring the navy personnel to wear those caps, and instead issuing them nicer, formal, officer caps after graduation.

It was at the first graduation in 1912, after that decision was made, that naval graduates decided to throw off these lower rank caps they were forced to wear in anticipation of getting their newer officer caps.

And thus a graduation tradition was born. This tradition quickly spread across the country and today, it’s the hallmark and maybe one of the most recognizable American graduation traditions.

Let’s Get Cultural

There are a number of culturally relevant graduation traditions that include the Baccalaureate Mass that is specific to Catholic graduates. After the traditional graduation ceremony at school, some catholic students will hold a specific mass at their church where friends and family can give thanks to God and celebrate this milestone.

Additionally, there are regionally specific graduation traditions that may include a week's worth of celebrations before graduation, and in some American high schools, seniors have been known to prank the administration in some capacity, although these traditions have slowed down because of concerns about safety and adherence to the school's code of conduct.


And that’s our list of the most common graduation traditions in Western Culture and the history behind each of them. If you are looking for graduation stoles, cords, or sashes, visit our graduation clothing online shop to find and customize your own today!

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