The Progressive Case for Caps and Gowns

As June approaches and GDS begins to send out letters about graduation, our seniors start to think about what to wear for the big event. On that day, family, teachers, and friends gather by the hundreds–a group so large that the GDS community moves to a local auditorium rather than hold the graduation on campus–to say a final farewell to the graduates who are headed off to their next stage in life. The boys default to their best suit and tie. For the girls, the longstanding custom is a white dress–unless a girl is feeling radical and decides to wear off-white, or even white with a dash of colour. Of course, we are allowed to wear whatever we want, but with hundreds of eyes on us–those of our peers, our parents, and our teachers–it’s hard to be the first to step out from an established norm.

For the past two decades the graduating class has lined up outside the Lisner Auditorium with the boys standing in the back and a froth of white dresses on show at the front. And it’s the white dresses that stand out. Not even the graduates in them, but the dresses themselves–and what they represent. In this moment, class members are together for the last time, yet as the young men stand in their professional garb, ready for their intellect to be celebrated, the women stand in white, appropriate for a bride, perhaps a garden party, but not primarily for the future workplace. The uniform of the boys points to a bright academic and professional future while that of the girls focuses on. . . what?

In every English class we are taught that the colour white on a woman–from Shakespeare’s Juliet to Hawthorne’s Beatrice–represents virginity and purity. Throughout history, feminine agency has been harshly repressed. Women were supposed to stay in the domestic sphere, while men went out to work. Women were long kept out of the political world; the 19th Amendment guaranteed the female vote 130 years after the Constitution was ratified.  The first female Supreme Court Justice was not appointed until the 1980s and, today, only 20% of Congress in comprised of women. And, of course, women are, to this day, paid less, on average, by the hour than men are. While it is true that discomfort with feminine professional power has decreased–especially in a liberal environment like Washington D.C.–it has in no way disappeared. Every year that the 60 or so GDS senior girls have walked across the stage wearing white, these young, bright women appear pristine and decorative. The boys, on the other hand, walk the stage looking like professional adults. By doing so without question, we subtly reinforce the rejection of feminine professionalism. 

That old-fashioned ideal is not the only one reinforced by GDS’s traditional graduation attire. At GDS, we pride ourselves on our forward thinking. Especially recently, this has meant learning about and accepting the limits of the gender binary. The reality is that not everyone fits under the labels “female” or “male;” not everyone is fairly served by a choice between the “masculine” suit and the “feminine” dress.  Our growing attention to what is missed by a binary view of gender should prompt us to reconsider GDS’s few sex-specific traditions.  Graduation–a visible, proud and relatively public celebration of the best of who we are as people and as an institution–is an important opportunity.   

Graduation is all about being together, when we celebrate each other and our class as a whole. Wearing caps and gowns would be a clear statement of community and unity. The uniformity would also de-emphasize physical boy-girl distinctions, as well as class distinctions. Some graduates spend hundreds on graduation outfits that other can ill afford; with everyone wearing a gown there would be much less pressure to wear an expensive outfit underneath.  Caps and gowns break down the gender barrier and they act as an equalizer. They are also the global mark of the scholar. Not only do students all over the world graduate in them, there are also numerous academic events in which professionals wear their alma mater gown. Graduation should be a joyous event–one in which every graduate feels comfortable and revels in a moment celebrating the entire class’ scholarly achievement.  Why not walk the stage in academic gowns, and throw up our caps when it’s all over?

By: Sarah Pillard