Words| Elizabeth Brauders
Illustration| Mary Corbally
It seems like too small an issue to even matter at first. Women wear graduation hats, men don’t, big deal. I hadn’t taken too much notice of it until last year when, as a final-year student living on campus, I had my own graduation on the brain at the same time as witnessing droves of students tripping around Front Square in robes followed by beaming parents. It started to visually jar with me to see this arbitrary distinction between the sexes, particularly when coupled with the oft-whispered (but oft-repeated) “it’s the cap on a woman’s education…”, but despite its ubiquity, I couldn’t find any reputable source to back this idea up.
“It started to visually jar with me to see this arbitrary distinction between the sexes, particularly when coupled with the oft-whispered (but oft-repeated) “it’s the cap on a woman’s education…””
The issue appears to have started with the rules of polite society, particularly in the years leading up to, and including, women’s first admission into Trinity College. Tradition called for men to remove headgear indoors as a sign of respect, as these items were functional and often identified the wearer’s role in society: the soldier, the policeman, the clergyman. Women, on the other hand, wore hats only for decoration and were allowed to keep them on inside, especially as hairstyles for the wealthy took time to primp, perfect, and pin into place. Florence Hartley’s Ladies Book of Etiquette, dating from 1860, highlights the expectations on women to remain covered in public spaces. Speaking in relation to long public travels she writes, “If you are to pass the night in the cars, carry a woolen or silk hood, that you may take off your bonnet at night.”
According to another popular doyenne of etiquette, Emily Post, the tradition of men removing headgear started with the need for medieval knights to remove helmets to identify themselves, and the practice then became conflated with showing respect on entering someone’s home. Christianity, the prevailing religion in Ireland at the time, also reinforced the idea that men must remove hats indoors, particularly places of worship: “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God”, while simultaneously reinforcing the idea that a woman should do the opposite: “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.”
Thus, thanks to historical factors and baffling religious advice, gendered associations with indoor hat-wearing became part of the social consciousness. Even today, Debretts agrees with much older rules of propriety stating, “…[gentlemen’s hats] should be worn on the front of the head or carried under the arm, but should not be worn indoors”, though thankfully we’ve cut out the hand-wringing over dishonoured body parts. Coincidentally, around this high point for finicky etiquette, women were first admitted to universities. Trinity did so in 1906, at the dawn of the Edwardian era.
“The issue appears to have started with the rules of polite society, particularly in the years leading up to, and including, women’s first admission into Trinity College.”
The origins of the academic cap itself are uncertain, connected with that of the religious biretta. The cap was originally the preserve of doctorates, though this has evolved over time, and varies from institution to institution and country to country. In Italy, bachelors graduates, male and female alike, most commonly sport a laurel wreath, a symbol of victory. Other countries turn away from traditional symbols. In China for example, as there is no cap and gown tradition, female graduates are turning to wedding dresses to add a sense of occasion to their day. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Te Ping Chem reports, “In the absence of ingrained customs, new, individualized rituals are being grafted onto drier, more perfunctory festivities.” If these students can adapt and create their own customs, why must we be so shackled to our historical traditions?
Within my (mostly female) graduating class, concern centred on associations with the headpiece as signifying the end of female education, though most still opted to sport them on the day. I asked our male peers in the lead up to the graduation day whether or not they wanted the opportunity to wear a hat, whether or not they felt disadvantaged not being able to wear the entire academic dress appropriate to their achievement. The responses were split with roughly half expressing some desire to have the option of a hat. While the others said they were unperturbed, I wondered if this was due to the feminine associations with the hat rather than a genuine apathy.
The lack of choice afforded to students made me reconsider wearing a cap, despite its rightful status as a symbol of education, and the wrongful associations of female limitations. Rather than sacrificing the cap altogether on the altar of Pointlessly Gendered Clothing (see: “meggings”), the ideal future would see these associations dispelled, and everyone given the choice. Despite the fact that we still live in a world where being born a man is an incalculable advantage, it seemed to me that they’d actually drawn the short straw in this case, with women being afforded a choice that men were not.
Armstrong & Oxford, the college’s official robe providers, did not respond to my request for an explanation on the refusal to give academical caps to men, or the “ladies only” policy stated on their website. However, some research provided the most probable explanation for the restriction: the rule stating that men could not wear the cap indoors necessitated constant carrying, and they became more likely to damage or even lose the cap in the course of their graduation day.
“It seems as though a comeback is on the cards. “All the lads are taking them!” one graduate told me on the way to his own ceremony, while another student wrote to me afterwards to estimate that only 15 of 130 students chose not to wear them”
When I first contacted the college about the issue, they only repeated official policy, that the cap was optional for all, and not merely for women. To me it seemed shocking that the college wouldn’t have been aware of the supplier’s policy, or hadn’t noticed the sheer volume of hatless men walking around their behatted female peers during graduation season, so following some more discussion, and a long silence, the college came back to me. “Your concern was raised with the gown suppliers, Armstrong and Oxford, and it would appear that there was a misunderstanding in relation to Trinity’s policy on the wearing of caps being optional for both genders. This has been brought to their attention and A&O suppliers will ensure that caps are available to male graduands as well as female graduands at the forthcoming Winter Commencements ceremonies and at subsequent ceremonies.” Success, it would seem!
Sadly, the answer came too late for me to feel at-ease wearing the cap while other could not, but I stand by the decision I made. While others thought it a pointless decision, I felt most comfortable without, and will be forever extremely grateful to the classmate who leaned over while we were queuing for seats and whispered, “You know, I really admire your decision.”
Whether or not the men of Trinity College will totally re-adopt the hat remains to be seen, but having spoken to graduates this past week, it seems as though a comeback is on the cards. “All the lads are taking them!” one graduate told me on the way to his own ceremony, while another student wrote to me afterwards to estimate that only 15 of 130 students chose not to wear the hat.
In the struggle for equality, many issues have divided men and women, with one group expecting to be disadvantaged by change, but an issue like this is one of the rare happy ones where I can’t see any possible objections. It may seem like a small issue to some, the simple question of headgear, but each small step towards equality is a victory. Our female graduates can feel the weight of assumptions about their education removed, while men have regained the right to display their academic achievements in all the same ways as women can. It’s win-win for all; even the hat itself sees its more positive connotations championed. Now all that remains is to convince people to wear them correctly, on the front of the head, and sort out an equally snazzy option for the poor unfortunates who just look unseemly in millinery.