Ohio State nav bar

Decorated Mortarboards: An Introduction

Various red graduation mortarboards at graduation

Decorating mortarboards, or graduation caps, has become an increasingly common practice among graduating students. In what follows, folklorist Sheila Bock offers a brief overview of this tradition, featuring photographs of decorated mortarboards worn by graduates who participated in the commencement ceremony at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on December 17, 2016.

Various red graduation mortarboards at graduation

Within the context of commencement ceremonies, participating in this practice can serve multiple functions for graduates. At the practical level, decorated grad caps can help family members spot them in the crowd. Glitter, flowers, and bright colors are often used for this purpose, and in December ceremonies, some graduates use seasonal decorations like garlands and Christmas lights to help them stand out.

No Thanks! I'd rather raise hell and change the world

The flat surface of the mortarboard also provides an ideal blank canvas for acts of personal expression. In other words, decorating the mortarboards allows graduates to highlight aspects of the self that are often rendered invisible by the ceremonial dress of the occasion.

Hi, Logan!

Designs range from the simple…

A life lived for art is never wasted. Image of grad cap that looks like an art palette.

…to the elaborate.


Graduates use their decorated caps to align themselves with particular group identities, ranging from their university community…

Life just got real. Math-themed grad cap with equations.

…to their college major or future occupational group…

Por ustedes y para ustedes. Gracia mama y papa.

…to their family.

Save the bees

In some cases, individual graduates will design their caps similarly to mark themselves as part of the same folk group.

Save the bees

Graduates use their decorated caps to express religion beliefs.

Mahalo, mom and dad. Grad cap with pineapple.

Mortarboards also serve as sites of expressing emotions ranging from appreciation and gratitude…

I have done a smart thing

…to pride…

About time! Clock-themed grad cap.

…to relief…

Game of Loans. Debt-themed grad cap.

…to frustration.

LOL (laugh out loud), BYE.

Popular culture references are very common, and graduates often use humor to playfully disrupt the formality of the occasion.

1 ex. 2 kids. 9 jobs. 1 husband. 1 addiction. 13 years. 127 credits. 66k loans. equals 1 college grad!!!

Some graduates use the mortarboard to reflect on their past experiences and the obstacles they have had to overcome.

Now go and don't look back

Others use the mortarboard to look toward the future…

Life begins now

…sometimes with optimism and sometimes with anxiety.

Latina Rebels Facebook page screen shot: My parents crossed the border so I could cross the stage.

In addition, decorated graduation caps can serve as personalized sites of political expression. Beyond the ceremony itself, posting images on social media platforms like Instagram provides opportunities for new contexts of display for personal expression and enacting community. See, for example, the online assemblage of decorated mortarboards marked by the #LatinxGradCap hashtag.

Hire vets

Whether playful or profound (or both), decorated mortarboards are sites of creative and poignant expression that make visible the folk perspectives of graduating students, both within the formal space of the commencement ceremony and beyond.