C.U.H.&G.S. – The Square Cap

From Statutes and Ordinances — Academical Dress and Discipline — Academical Dress — Headdresses

With a festal gown, for a Doctor of Divinity a black velvet cap, for a Doctor in another Faculty a wide-brimmed round velvet bonnet with gold string and tassels: provided that a Doctor, when taking part in ceremonial in the Senate-House, may with his festal gown wear the square cap;

with all other gowns, for residents the square cap: provided that an undergraduate shall wear either the square cap or no headdress.

The square cap and its contemporary use in Cambridge is the subject of much confusion. The is no reason for this, however, since the situation is well-defined – in general, resident members of the university wear the square cap with black (i.e. undress) gowns and the bonnet with scarlet gowns. There are three exceptions to this rule.

  1. Doctors of Divinity wear the Bishop Andrewes cap instead of the bonnet;
  2. The square cap may be substituted for the bonnet in the Senate-House;
  3. Undergraduates may wear no head-dress at all instead of the square cap.

Such are the rules; what follows is a commentary. It is useful to note before starting, however, that only doctors have scarlet gowns thus references to bonnets apply to doctors only.

  1. There is no restriction on the head-dress of members of the University not in residence. Thus, non-residents are allowed to wear no headdress at all or any item of headdress they prefer. One presumes that this rule arose on practical grounds – the square cap is not an easy item to pack.

    The rule is frequently expressed as "Non-residents can wear top hats". There are indeed numerous photographs of Victorian gentlemen in gowns and top hats: they would have travelled to Cambridge in top hats and, if they had not brought square caps with them, would have kept their top hats on with their gowns. They would certainly not have considered appearing in public with no headdress! However, there are also pictures of graduates wearing gowns with boaters (for instance) – probably taken in the Edwardian period when boaters were particularly popular.

  2. Undergraduates were once – like other resident members of the University – required to wear academic headdress too. This is now optional. The requirement was relaxed in the 1960s … but only to allow undergraduates to go bareheaded. There is no option for them to wear any other form of headdress.

  3. The option for allowing doctors in the Senate-House to wear the square cap instead of the bonnet is another practical one. It is not easy to doff a (floppy) bonnet compared to the (hard) square cap.

  4. In general, squares and bonnets follow the etiquette of other hats – they are removed when in-doors. They are typically kept on, however, by those in authority. (This is just one expression of a general rule, now almost forgotten, that a gentleman can keep his hat on in his own house.) Examples of this can be seen in the Senate-House at degree congregations.

  5. There are now numerous misunderstandings of the square cap: The budding cap-wearer should ignore these even should they come from seeming authorities (including academic tailors)!

Note on the Background

The background for this file and for the links is based on the pattern called "doctors' lace" which is found on some – though not all – of the black doctoral gowns.

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    Last updated June 7th, 2004