I am looking for something to wear to my graduation. There is no dress code, which has left me in a sea of confusion. Does this mean anything goes? Or should I invest in something I can wear on other occasions in the future? — Molly, Washington, D.C.
The official graduation uniform — the cap and gown — has its origins in medieval universities, which were designed (see what I did there?) to educate clergymen. Emphasis on the “men.” These religious-leaders-in-training adapted and adopted the robes and hats of the jobs for which they were destined, in part to distinguish themselves from the nonstudents around them. (Also, those old venues of higher learning were cold.)
As the schools evolved, the dress became more ceremonial as well as nongendered, until it was relegated to the ultimate ceremony, though robes are still used to denote identity in different ways, with colors and lengths symbolizing different degrees and areas of concentration.
The fact that everyone still has to wear the same thing on top, however, means that what you wear underneath becomes especially important. It’s the way you get to express yourself, and because those garments are generally hidden, no rules usually apply. That’s both great — you can wear whatever you want! — and intimidating. This is a moment that, for most of us, is preserved in posterity, both in memories and in pictures, so the choice you make may follow you for the rest of your life.
The question is, Do you want to highlight the person you are now or the person you are going to be? Who do you want people to see when you take off the robe?
The fact that this is an increasingly complicated question is borne out on the current source of all wisdom, TikTok. Search “graduation dress” and the results that pop up feature a variety of ideas, including suits, classic white dresses (another graduation tradition that began more than a century ago and was adopted to symbolize women’s passage from girlhood to adulthood, the innocence of youth and so on) and more.
That alone may be a reason to eschew a white dress. After all, graduation is a time to celebrate you — your achievement in simply reaching that finishing line — as well as the family that helped you get to this point. And what you wear under your robe is one way of doing that.
Sites like RedBubble may be full of joke graduation looks, but resisting the temptation to go that route is probably wise. (Having to explain decades later why you thought wearing a dress that announced “I graduated! Can I can go back to bed now?” was a good idea may be more trouble than it is worth.) And while choosing a look for your next stage may be a smart investment, this should be a moment when you pause to enjoy the moment you are in.
All of which is to say, this is a day to wear something that you love, that makes you happy and makes you feel like you — and that is comfortable for sitting and standing and jumping. Maybe it’s a little black dress. Maybe it’s short. Maybe it’s long. Maybe it’s floral. Maybe it’s just some cool pants and a striped T-shirt.
Just remember: Whatever you decide, it is destined to become the equivalent of a time capsule in sartorial form.