Tradition & Aesthetic: Where to Draw the Line?

Graduation Gowns in Europe 

Earlier this morning, the Free University of Brussels (ULB) came under scrutiny for asking female students to wear a “nice revealing neckline” for their graduation ceremony. It may seem bizarre to think that an event like this, one steeped so readily in tradition, is at the behest of a university seemingly at odds with basic decorum.

However, one may argue that a dictatorial license over aesthetic is in of itself a tradition, with students being banned from graduations across the globe for dress code violations. Each university and robe-maker, however, has a different take on the boundaries of this tradition. For instance, the majority of universities in the US provide closed-front graduation gowns to be worn at graduation, which has only been happening in recent decades.

It is thought that this was to give the entire ceremony a feeling of equality and celebration, as nobody could distinguish the clothes and accessories representative of class or background underneath. Tradition here evidently takes a backseat to practicality and the general atmosphere necessitated by the ceremony.

Tradition, mind you, has many heads, and is liable to rear them as soon as one is cut off. To explain; graduation attire is fundamentally defined by the transmission of custom from generation to generation, and generations tend to go back as far as the human race, so tradition has an awful lot to work with. This may explain why, despite rejecting the traditional open-front gown, the US can adhere to tradition via mimicking the closed-front ‘roba’, a long black cape that students wore in medieval times.

The question of aesthetic and tradition really comes into play when one addresses what to wear beneath the gown, with fashion trends much more liable to the change with the seasons, celebrity trendsetters, and other extrinsic circumstances.

Gowns, being originally designed to keep the wearer warm, can seem like a furnace in the Summer, a blanket in the Winter, and a slightly awkward duvet in the Autumn. Naturally, the student would choose to wear lighter or heavier under-clothes depending on the time of year. In Australia, located ¾ of a mile from the surface of the sun, students often attend their graduation ceremony in flip-flops and sandals. This may not adhere to a classic understanding of graduation aesthetic, but one could argue, in a country so infamously hot, shorts and flip-flops may indeed constitute ‘traditional’ Australian attire.

In the UK, where the weather is marginally less variable, robe-makers normally recommend clothing that would accentuate the traditional graduation attire. For men, suit jackets help to puff out the shoulders, giving the hood more security. Top buttons are highly recommended as well, as they attach to the hood via a loop, anchoring the hood and preventing it from slipping back. Low cut tops, despite, according to the Free University of Brussels, being more aesthetically pleasing, do in fact provide much less security for the hood, often causing it to fall back beyond the shoulders.

This all makes a lot of sense, but where is the line drawn? Most robe-makers and universities suggest that ladies should wear blouses or skirts as opposed to trousers. Aside from weather conditions, this really has no practical benefit one way or the other, it is simply deemed more ‘aesthetic’. When tradition is taken out of it, aestheticism becomes eminently more subjective. This naturally begs the question: ‘who says?’, and where, if at all, is the line drawn between aestheticism and tradition.

Other industries have also chimed in with recommendations where there were none before. Companies that produce mortarboards, as well as magazines with a young demographic, are producing articles along the lines of “Graduation Hairstyles Which Will Look Great Under Your Cap”. Again, this makes perfect sense in terms of practicality. No fake afro wigs, top-knots or umbrella hats, as the cap may not fit well. However, unless any particularly important people rock up to your graduation with their X-ray specs, it really does not matter what hairstyle is ‘under your cap’. It is personal preference.

All in all, traditions, as seen in Australia and the US, as well as in England (though with slightly less variation), are liable to change as time goes by, albeit at a slower pace than fashion dictates. This does not give institutions the ability to infringe upon the most important graduation tradition: to enjoy and celebrate one’s academic achievements. I think it is fair to say that if this means wearing trousers instead of a blouse, or a high-cut top instead of a low-cut top, or a pink tie instead of grey one, or flip-flops and sandals, or the attire of one’s cultural heritage, under the traditional graduate gown and hood, then one should be allowed to do so, without any sort of judgement, even that of some baseless ‘recommendation’.

What are your thoughts?















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