fbpx What to Wear to Your College Graduation - College Life
Home / College Life / Get There / What to Wear to Your College Graduation

What to Wear to Your College Graduation

In case you’re wondering, it is possible to look stylish and feel comfortable during all the pomp and circumstance! A fashion expert tells you how.

You did it! After all the hard work and late nights, the day is yours. So relish every moment as you walk across the stage, shake hands, and receive your diploma.

Boston-based stylist Nicole Otchy has some tips on what to wear to rock that cap and gown.

Cap and Gown Facts

The traditional graduation dress is, of course, a cap and gown. Here are a few fun facts you may not know about your diploma-day attire.

The tradition of graduates tossing their caps in the air originated at Annapolis, Maryland, during a Naval Academy ceremony in 1912. Once the midshipmen graduated and became commissioned ensigns or second lieutenants, they no longer needed to wear those caps—ergo, they threw them in the air, and students at other schools followed suit.

Those heavy hoods might make you hot in the May sun, but they were originally adopted in the 12th century to keep scholars’ shaved heads warm in unheated buildings.

The mortarboard, or cap, is believed to have evolved from hats known as birettas, worn by Catholic clerics in the 1300s. These hats became popular in the 14th and 15th centuries, especially among artists and scholars. And that cardboard square shape? Many historians believe it mimics the shape of a book, to give a scholarly appearance. The mortarboard is so named because it resembles the boards bricklayers used to lay mortar.

The longest commencement speech on record dates to the early 19th century at Harvard College. Lasting more than six hours, it was given in Latin—and then repeated in Greek.

For men

Stay wrinkle free.

dress shirt

Whether the ceremony is inside or out, it gets hot under that extra layer, and you’re going to sweat and wrinkle, says Otchy. Choose a dress shirt that’s labeled wrinkle resistant to ensure that you’re camera ready following the ceremony. Many cotton blends fit the bill. You won’t go wrong with a white shirt, which provides a sharp, crisp contrast with your tie and gown.

Choose a lace-up shoe.

shoes and belt for graduation

Slip-ons, though comfy, are a bit too casual for your big day, as are boots. “Lace-up shoes look better, plus they’re a good investment, especially for job interviews down the road,” Otchy says. Jocelyn Yih, a fashion writer, recommends black-laced shoes. Whichever color you choose, she adds, match them with your belt.

Invest in a grown-up tie.

silk ties for graduation“Opt for real silk, in stripes or paisley, and go more conservative,” Otchy suggests. Not only is a quality tie a good investment, it will also photograph better—funky patterns tend to look blurry in pictures. If you must get creative, a good rule of thumb is: Don’t choose a pattern smaller than a nickel. And get the knot right! Often that’s all that shows above the gown, and a sloppy knot isn’t a good look.

Suit up.

You’ll never go wrong with a navy or gray suit, but no matter the color, make sure it fits well, Otchy says. Making the investment up front will save you money on a tailor.

Study resources for the courses you’re actually taking—whenever you need them.

Start here

For Women

Choose waterproof makeup.

waterproof makeup for college graduationIf you’re wearing lipstick or mascara, make sure both are waterproof and can weather sweat and tears.

Stay away from stilettos.

wedge sandals for graduation“Your best bet is to avoid a stiletto heel, which will hurt your feet and sink into the ground if you’re outdoors. Do a wedge or a block heel in sandals or closed-toe. Both are in style,” Otchy says. Your commencement ceremony isn’t the time to break in new shoes or try out new a new heel height you’re not used to.

Bare legs are fine.

Nylon tights or stockings will make you sweat.

Consider a jumpsuit.

Jumpsuits are having a fashion moment, and many have “wider, flowy legs—which makes them more breathable,” Otchy says. That means more ventilation and comfort under a hot robe. Some styles have pockets where you can stash your keys and cell phone.

If you prefer a skirt or dress, look for something sleek or lightweight. Lots of extra fabric can look bulky under a gown. If possible, choose a style with pockets.

Grab a clutch.

cross body clutch to carry to graduation

If your dress doesn’t have pockets, consider an envelope clutch or a cross-body purse with a delicate chain to hold your essentials—phone, lip gloss, tissues. Both are subtle and easy to tote from stage to photos to reception.

Accessorize subtly.

Complete your look with simple jewelry. If you’re not sure about how earrings or a necklace will match with a cap and gown, “go for a cuff bracelet,” Otchy suggests.

What Is Course Hero?

Course Hero is an online learning platform where you can access course-specific study resources contributed by a community of students and educators.

What Is College Life?

In College Life you'll find fresh tips, videos, and expert advice to help you graduate confident and prepared.