This year, thousands of LSA students will walk into Michigan Stadium donning classic square caps, billowing black gowns, and white hoods that indicate they have been awarded degrees from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. But it wasn’t always this way—and how we got here is a bit of an odd story.

Academic dress—long, plain gown and hood—originated in the medieval universities of Europe. For them, the clothing was practical (the buildings were unheated) and influenced by the solemn unadorned robes worn by monks, clerics, and priests. Known as the college habit, this garb was a student’s daily attire. Oxford and Cambridge were the first universities to mandate also wearing the robes during ceremonies, and other universities across Europe followed.

In the United States, the college habit took hold in the “colonial colleges”—a group that includes William & Mary, Rutgers, and all of the Ivy League schools except Cornell. Students at these schools wore the college habit daily until the beginning of the Civil War. The college habit slowly started to spread across the United States, though it wasn't standardized, either in terms of its appearance or what its different colors and aspects meant.

U-M’s earliest classes sported formalwear at graduation—long black coats with crisp white shirts underneath. However, some students took notice of the robes worn out East and proposed that U-M should wear them, too. By the 1890s, a vigorous debate raged on campus and in the pages of the Michigan Daily. Students in favor of donning the spare black robes pointed to the democratizing effect of the inexpensive and simple matching costumes. Students on the other side thought the pomp and grandeur of tuxedos better matched the significance of the event.

By May 1894, the “Lits”—students in College of Literature, Science, and the Arts—had settled the question by vote: Their graduating class would wear caps and gowns at commencement. The decision didn’t sit well with their rivals at the Law School. At the “senior swing out”—an early commencement exercise where graduating students attended chapel and held a walking procession—a number of students from the law and medical schools turned up to gawk at the Lits in their caps and gowns. Aside from some jeering—President Angell was there—nothing happened. But the next day, a group of “Laws,” clad in long white nightshirts, held a mock procession across campus to poke fun at the Lits and their plain black robes. The provocation caused a few skirmishes between Lits and Laws, and though a Michigan Daily article declared the fights were mostly good fun, the torn and shredded nightshirts hanging from the windows of frat houses demonstrated that the Lits had prevailed.

The Lits had won the battle and the war: Graduating U-M students have celebrated commencement in caps and gowns ever since.

America at War

During World War II, the country made sacrifices to support the troops. U-M did its part, instituting a three-semester academic calendar, which allowed most students to graduate in two or three years so they could quickly join the war effort with training in their fields. U-M poured resources into disciplines that desperately needed experts—like medicine, physics, chemistry, and world languages—and created new courses related to military service and the war, including the Army’s Judge Advocate General Program. Across campus, students would become soldiers after their deferment ended at graduation, and with men away at war, for the first time the University began heavily promoting fields like chemistry, physics, engineering, and astronomy to female students.

In addition, because U-M had more native-born Asian students than any institution in the country and a robust Japanese program, the Army selected U-M for its Japanese Language School. By 1942, the program and its hundreds of soldier-students were housed in East Quadrangle. Many of its instructors were Japanese Americans recruited by LSA Professor Joseph Yamagiwa from internment camps on the West Coast.

That year, U-M even decided to break tradition by holding commencement inside the Ferry Field House rather than on Ferry Field. The move would cut attendance significantly, but would also save money that supported the University’s various war-related programming instead. Some students were unhappy about the change, and a few went so far as to create a survey seniors could fill out on the Diag to express their view. Their poll showed that, by a small margin, students wanted to continue the tradition of graduating on the field. University administrators, though sympathetic, cited the importance of austerity during wartime—and students received their diplomas inside the Field House.

One Great Speech

In 1964, just six months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, newly inaugurated President Lyndon B. Johnson came to U-M and gave one of the most significant commencement addresses of all time. In what became known as his Great Society address, Johnson outlined his wide-ranging domestic plans and appealed to the tens of thousands of people in attendance, along with the entire nation, to help realize his vision for a new American era.

The speech, daring and future oriented, focused on challenges in three areas: the city, the countryside, and the classroom. Johnson asked Americans to come together for equality and peace, and to end poverty.

“I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of White House conferences and meetings—on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education, and on other emerging challenges,” Johnson promised. “Those who came to this land sought to build more than just a new country. They sought a new world. So I have come here today to your campus to say that you can make their vision our reality.”

Johnson implored the young graduates to join in his fight: “Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.”

Illustration and design by Erin Nelson. Original images courtesy of the Bentley.