Friday, February 8, 2013

The ubiquitous Mount gown

A procession of clerics heads toward the Coe Library
on May 11, 1947, for its formal dedication and blessing. MSMC
students in academic garb ring the Circle. Picture by Meriman Photo Art.
WE'VE BEEN UPLOADING about 20 recently scanned historic photos of the Charles Willard Coe Memorial Library to our online repository.

The Residence Life Council with their bachelor's hoods
 waits for Commencement ceremonies to start.
Photo is dated June 1964, and the site is what is now
the Porch area of the first floor of the Coe Library.
In the same busy week, the College Archives also accessioned an authentic MSMC cap and gown from alumna Mary Thompson '38. Many of our old photos have pictures of students academic garb, so we thought this would be a good opportunity to share an outstanding Mount tradition from yesteryear.

In the early decades of the College, entering Mount freshmen had to endure various forms of orientation, both sacred and silly. The most cherished was Convocation, when gowns and mortarboards were handed out in a solemn ceremony welcoming the young women to academic life. Students were expected to wear their academic garb at events throughout their four years -- all school assemblies, formal presentations and liturgies, even daily Mass. A white collar was attached at the neckline, and the famous Mount bachelor's hood of white velveteen with purple and gold lining only came out at Commencement. So if you come across an old photo with caps and gowns galore, don't assume it's about graduation.

Mary Thompson '38 donated
her mortarboard and gown
to the College Archives.
Cottrell & Leonard
set the standard for
academic gowns.
Close inspection of Mary Thompson's gown, which she would have received in the fall of 1934, shows a carefully made garment of a fine cotton or linen with a great deal of hand-stitching and French seams. It was manufactured in Albany, N.Y., by Cottrell & Leonard, keeper of strict academic garb standards for the Ivy League and other prestigious schools of the day.

The mortarboard is even more astonishing. The headpiece is a real hat. It was made to size -- Miss Thompson was a 6 3/4 -- of shaped felt with a stiffener and bordered in silk grosgrain ribbon. The board is heavy cardboard or thin wood with a covering of black wool. It was evidently a tasty treat for carpet beetles or crickets but looks surprisingly good for its venerable 75 years.
Harry Potter in the
gown of Hogwarts.
Like other traditions, the all-season cap and gown went the way of school uniforms and nuns' habits. The 21st Century version of academic garb is a distant cousin of Mary Thompson's, mass-produced inexpensively of shiny polyester and designed for a few hours of show. But there is something charming about the similarity nevertheless, calling to mind how medieval some elements of academic life were -- and still are.

Talk to students today in the Coe Library's gothic Reading Room about the  old Mount cap and gown tradition, and you'll be met with surprise and enthusiasm. They'd love to have academic gowns to wear around campus, not just the day they graduate. Credit Harry Potter with making flowing black gowns very cool on campus once again.

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