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What is a Mortarboard?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 28, 2024
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A mortarboard is a special type of cap worn with academic regalia at graduations and in certain academic settings. Because it has an extremely distinctive appearance, these caps are often linked in the public eye with the academic world and with the celebrations associated with graduation. They have also historically been linked with the teaching profession, a throwback to an era when instructors wore full academic regalia while teaching.

A classic mortarboard consists of a cap that is attached to a hard, flat square of material. Typically, a tassel is worn with it, with the tassel being attached with a button or tab in the middle of the square section. Depending on the design, the cap may be soft or hard, and it may have laces or elastic to ensure a snug fit, as a properly fitting one should be tight.

Traditionally, the board is positioned so that it is aligned to be parallel with the ground, while the bulk of the cap rests on the back of the head. Depending on regional traditions, the positioning of the tassel may be important; sometimes, the location indicates whether or not the wearer has graduated, or what level of education the wearer has completed.

Classically, mortarboards are designed in the same color as the rest of the wearer's academic regalia, so they are typically black. In the case of colored regalia, the cap may be the same color as the gown, or worn in a contrasting color to create a coordinated look that reflects the school colors of the graduate. The tassel's colors may be matched to the school colors, or they may reflect the discipline the student studied.

The origins of this headgear are quite old. In Roman times, a skullcap much like the modern mortarboard was worn, and such caps were also worn by Muslim scholars in the Middle East. By the Middle Ages, mortarboards were worn by members of some holy orders, which explains how they entered the educational system in Europe; most students were also members of religious orders in the Middle Ages, when the cap flourished.

This cap goes by a number of alternate names, including corner cap, in a reference to the four corners of the square; trencher; or square cap. The name is actually a slang term, in reference to the easily carried boards used by masons to store mortar to work with as they move along on a project.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Catapult — On Aug 16, 2011

@sherlock87- That sounds like my college commencement. But while our robes weren't great, we did get to keep our mortarboards. Of course, that just means that every time I clean my room I come across it and have to ask myself again, "Where should I put this?"

I love the symbolism of mortarboards and what the represent, but nobody tells you what to do with them after you've turned the tassle and left the building.

By sherlock87 — On Aug 15, 2011

@FernValley- I had those too, and mine at my college graduation were only a little better.

We received them and then had the option to steam them ourselves if we so chose, by going to a specific room where there were steamers running for about 6 hours the day before graduation. I remember that of the 800 or so people in my class, it seemed like about a third of us wanted to steam our gowns. The worst part was that of only about 4 steamers, one was leaking and another wouldn't turn on at all. My roommate and I struggled with our robes for a few minutes, then sort of said "Well, they look okay, I guess," because there was a huge line behind us. I don't think that anyone's ended up really looking nicely pressed, but I guess they look okay anyway.

By FernValley — On Aug 15, 2011

I wish that my high school cap and gown had been of nicer quality. I had to pay what seemed like a lot at the time just to rent them, and I remember they turned out to be little more than royal blue plastic; they were fabric, but on of those acrylics that really just don't even feel like cloth. I guess they looked all right, but they certainly didn't make me feel like the day was special.

By seag47 — On Aug 15, 2011

At my college graduation, I remember everyone running around before the ceremony asking each other which side to put the tassel on prior to graduating. There was nobody there to direct us yet, so we all agreed on one side. If we erred, we would not be alone.

Our school colors were navy blue and red, but the mortarboards and gowns were just navy blue, and so were the tassels. It would not have been glaringly obvious if we did have them on the wrong side.

No one corrected us, so we must have chosen the correct side. I don’t remember which one it was, but I do remember pulling the tassel to the other side after I received my diploma.

By orangey03 — On Aug 14, 2011

My high school cap and gown were very pretty. My school colors were orange and blue. The gown was a bright blue shade, as was the mortarboard. The tassel was half orange and half blue with a gold charm made of the letters of my high school hanging from it.

I had only rented the cap and gown, so I had to give them back after the ceremony. We had the option to buy instead of rent, but the price was just too high. The school did let us keep the tassels, though. Mine still hangs from the knob of a high cabinet in my room.

By Perdido — On Aug 14, 2011

I have always thought mortarboards were so ugly! I hated wearing one, but I was glad that everyone else in my class had to wear one, too. I know I should have been happy to wear it because of what it symbolizes, but all I could think of was how stupid I must look.

I have a short, round face, and capping it off with a flat board did nothing to enhance my appearance. I looked like I left part of my head at home!

My favorite part of the graduation ceremony was when I got to toss that hideous thing up in the air. I insisted that my mom take pictures of me after I tossed the mortarboard instead of taking them while I had it on my head.

By cloudel — On Aug 13, 2011

I always wondered where mortarboards got their name! Other than the shape, I don’t see a connection between masonry mortarboards and graduation hats, so that is kind of a strange thing to name them!

In high school, they just called them graduation caps. Our small school kept things pretty simple. I didn’t even hear the term “mortarboard” until getting ready for my college graduation, and I had to ask someone what it meant.

It’s really an unappealing word. I think any word with the syllable “mort” in it reminds me of sad things, like “mortuary,” “mortician,” and “mortality.”

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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