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You remember that episode, next to the very last one in the series, on the Cosby Show where Claire is trying to explain to Winnie and Nelson why graduates where a cap and gown. It was just so cute. I love the part where she says they put little sandwiches on the cap and use the tassel to brush off the crumbs. You want to know the actual origins? Too bad I'm telling you anyways.
The cap derived from another head covering: the hood. Those who wore hoods like the Druids were considered well respected. It separated them from others in a society. This practice later translated in to a school tradition. Tassels signified the achievements of a particular student.
The origin of gowns was more of a religious nature. Dominant religious groups controlled universities in the middle ages. The gowns they wore made them stand out. Students were required to emulate that style. As a result, they used gowns to celebrate the highest achievements students acquired in the institutions.
Make sense now?
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