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The Decorated Graduation Cap Tradition

Decorating graduation caps, also known as mortarboards, has become an increasingly common tradition among graduating students. Dr. Sheila Bock from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas conducted a study from 2016 to 2021 on the diverse forms and meanings of this tradition among people graduating from colleges or universities. The purpose of this now-closed study, titled “Decorated Mortarboards: Forms and Meanings,” was to find out how and why people choose to decorate their mortarboards.

For an introduction to the tradition of decorated mortarboards, please visit our "Decorated Mortarboards: An Introduction" page.

This tradition is now the subject a of a book from Utah State University Press entitled Claiming Space: Performing the Personal through Decorated Mortarboards by Dr. Sheila Bock (2023). Sample chapters and an order form for the book can be found at the University Press of Colorado's website.

Experience the Decorated Graduation Cap Tradition

¡Sí Se Pudo! The Art and Stories of Latinx Grad Caps

In 2019, Sheila Bock, Claudia Chiang-López, Nicole Cristina Espinosa, Brenda Carolina Cruz Gomez curated a digital exhibit on the art and stories of the decorated mortarboards worn by Latinx graduates at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The exhibit was on display in the Lied Library at UNLV during the Spring 2019 graduation season. Drawing on photographs and interviews documenting the tradition between 2016 and 2018, this exhibit highlighted the perspectives and experiences of individual graduates, as well as the ways in which the mortarboard displays offer insight into the larger social and political factors shaping Latinx graduates’ experiences with higher education. 

#GradCapTraditions Photo Galleries

Photo galleries for individual commencement ceremonies are available to view on GooglePhotos using the links below.

December 17, 2016 at University of Nevada, Las Vegas
May 13, 2017 at University of Nevada, Las Vegas
December 17, 2017 at Ohio State University
December 19, 2017 at University of Nevada, Las Vegas
May 6, 2018, at Ohio State University
May 12, 2018, at University of Nevada, Las Vegas
December 18, 2018 at University of Nevada, Las Vegas
May 18, 2019 at University of Nevada, Las Vegas
December 17, 2019 at University of Nevada, Las Vegas
May 14 & 15, 2021 at University of Nevada, Las Vegas

In the future, interview data will be added to the digital archive, offering insight into the meanings and motivations driving this tradition.

Read about the Decorated Graduation Cap Tradition

#GradCapTraditions in the Press

"Message on a mortar board: graduation caps respond to Trump era" on Times Higher Education
"Graduation caps decorated to celebrate accomplishment but also to promote political messages" on ktnv.com
"As students express themselves on caps, commencement formality goes by the (mortar)boards" on azcentral.com
"Decorated graduation caps reflect joy, angst of students" on apnews.com
"What can we learn from the way graduates are decorating their caps?" on theconversation.com 
"From 'Thanks, Mom and Dad!' To 'Done With This B.S.'--What Graduation Caps Say About This Generation" on Kjzz.org
"The New Statement Piece: Graduation Caps" on byuradio.org (scroll down to locate article link)
"UNLV Grads find mortarboards ideal medium for personal touch" on Las Vegas Review Journal

Related Readings

Bock, Sheila. 2014. “Performing the Personal in a State of Transition: Decorated Mortarboards.” Journal of Folklore and Education 1(1):34-38. 
Bock, Sheila. 2017. “Decorated Mortarboards: An Introduction” [photo essay].
Bronner, Simon. 2012. Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Harrison, A. A., Sommer, R., Rucker, M. H., & Moore, M. (1986). Standing Out from the Crowd: Personalization of Graduation Attire. Adolescence 21(84):863-74.

Additional GradCap Photo Galleries and Resources

Uplifting Grad Caps Capture the Struggle and Pride of Being a Latino Graduate on The Huffington Post
This Is the Story Behind the Amazing Latinx Graduation Caps on Vivala
15 Inspiring Grad Caps that Honor the Sacrifices of Immigrant Parents on Remezcla
#LatinxGradCaps Celebrates Latinas Graduating From College on Latin Post
11 Latino-Themed Cap Designs For Your Graduation Inspo on We Are Mitu
15 Of The Best DIY Graduation Cap Ideas For Black Fraternity And Sorority Members on Watch the Yard
16 Graduation Caps From Black Students That Will Make You Proud, Laugh and SMH on .Mic
Native Student Denied Wearing of his Beaded Gradutation Cap on Native News Online
Graduation Cap Dispute on WLOS News 13 (video hosted by YouTube)
All Other Decorated Graduation Caps Get Put to Shame by This LED Mortarboard from Georgia Tech on Some Life
Student Selling Ad Space on Graduation Cap to Pay Loans on USA Today
These Graduation Caps Will Either Have You Clapping Your Hands in Pride, or Cracking Up in Laughter on wearemitu.com
25 Inspiring Grad Caps that Honor the Sacrifices of Immigrant Parents and The #ImmiGrad Hashtag is a Testament to the Sacrifices Immigrant Parents Make for Their Children and This USC Student Put Actual Pupusas on Her Grad Cap and We're Very Here for It on Remezcla
Why These Students are Using the Hashtag #ImmiGrad--and You Should Too on DefineAmerican.com
#Hamilgrads on Twitter
Disnerds (Disney nerds) on Facebook
Graduate Turns Cap into 'Hire Me' Billboard with QR Code on ABC News