ASK FATHER: Mortar board (cap) etiquette during academic Mass

black-mortar-boardFrom a reader…


What is the appropriate etiquette for those wearing academic dress during an OF Baccalaureate Mass? I understand that academic dress is not in any sense equivalent to the priestly garments, be it liturgical vestments or choir dress, despite academic dress deriving from the latter. I ask this because I will be reading the First Reading during this Mass. Perhaps I’m (stupidly) getting confused because academic dress is ceremonial in nature, but not liturgical in nature (unless of course, it is the academic dress of a cleric, which seems to be a long forgotten tradition since the 1970s).

Like I said, I feel like I may be blurring the lines here simply because academic dress derives from choir dress and there is such a thing as clerical choir dress that has elements of academic dress when necessary, but I am a layman. Should I assume the etiquette of any normal layman wearing a cap in church (thus taking it off when I enter) and should my female classmates leave their caps on? Do I leave it on when I read the First Reading, and should my female classmate who is reading the Second Reading leave hers on?

I haven’t given this much thought.  So…

… off the top of my head….

If the Blessed Sacrament is there, men should not wear caps.  However, if everyone else does, wear it.  Also, remove your cap to enter the sanctuary to read, genuflect, etc., and put it back on when you leave the sanctuary.   I think the females could leave their caps on.

Clerics should wear their house cassock, with a feraiuolo and academic biretta with proper color of trim.  I suppose they could substitute the academic hood.

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Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Titus says:

    Mortar boards and academic tams share a common ancestor with modern birettas. The rules are the same. Take off your mortarboard/tam whenever the priests in choir take off their birettas (or would take them off if they were there).

    I researched this extensively about six years ago for my law school graduation (among the ceremonies for which there were a Mass and a hodgepodge prayer service in a church), and that was the pretty strong consensus. Alas and alack, I do not know where I may have made notes of my sources at that time.

  2. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Also, ladies, please wear your mortar boards with the flat parallel to the ground, and NOT bobby-pinned to the back of your skull such that those behind you think they are following a wall. Male and female academic dress alike in this regard.

    [Thank you. That looks just plan stupid, which rather contradicts the meaning of the occasion.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  3. Philmont237 says:

    EWTN answered this back in 2013.

  4. Lirioroja says:

    That requires that ladies wear their hair down so that the mortar board can be worn as it was meant to. So many wear their hair up because they want to look pretty for a special occasion and their graduation is a special occasion. Unfortunately the mortar board doesn’t fit over an updo, as all that gathered hair gives the head an unnatural shape. And that’s why they end up bobby pinning the mortar boards to the back of their heads. So ladies, if you want to wear your mortar board properly, wear your hair down so that it actually fits over your head and save the updo for another time.

    (Now, cue the screams of, “How dare you tell me how to wear my hair, I’ll wear it however I please!”)

  5. Imrahil says:

    I’d say:

    When standing for the Gospel, or kneeling in any way, not wear it as a man even if everyone else does.

    Pardon my musing… the “even better” way for women, properly respecting the tradition of both this cap and female headcovering, might be to replace it by a normal non-academic headcover, say a shawl (I guess a mantilla would take to long and a hat would occupy too much space), whenever the men remove it entirely; or wear a mantilla below, which should not be visible when the cap is worn.

    As a reader: no; that is an action in functione and only the bishop wears a “hat” in functione during a reading. As a readeress: As this is an academic cap, derived from a clerical one, which signifies an office, not one’s personal veil, shawl or hat, I’d personally prefer an entirely unveiled woman in functione to one wearing such a cap. Setting aside the question whether women should step in for the male-reserved office of lector at all, of course.

  6. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:

    Ah, back to my days in the parishes at the University of Eugene and University of Virginia where I was a professor. Good advice from Fr. Z.

    I would suggest that, if, in fact, the men are wearing mortar boards during the Mass, they should remove them (as Dominican friars would drop their capuce, which *was* worn at Mass in the old rite) at certain points: all Collects, the Gospel, from the Preface Dialogue to the end of Communion, and from the Prayer after Communion to the recessional procession.

    Also, note that ecclesiastics do not wear academic birettas if they do not have an ecclesiastical title. Only pontifical faculties can grant such a degree, so many M.Div. degrees are not ecclesiastical but secular, so too many theology M.A.s. So when in academic dress, clerics wear the mortarboard (or, I suppose, if they wish, a non-academic, normal, biretta).

    I was in that position for many years: my UC Berkeley Ph,D, was not ecclesiastical, nor was my theology G.T.U. theology M.Div. (And we friars never wear ecclesiastical birettas—gun control?). So, I wore a doctoral mortarboard for many years at academic functions. At last, I was given a Dominican Order S.T.M. (actually a kind of honorary doctorate), so now I can wear a biretta (and a ring!).

  7. jbazchicago says:

    I might add that as a KHS, by privilege, we always followed the biretta customs until recently, when The Grand Magisterium dictated that we now only wear them to process in, and once Mass begins, we remove our beret and assume it again after the final blessing.

    I don’t know if it’s by custom or privilege that we are permitted to wear our berets indoor, where gentlemen were always expected to remove their hats (unless of course they are clerics or now, have the privileges of clerics).

  8. Stephen Matthew says:

    The wearing of hats indoors is presently looked upon as improper.

    However, the practice is making something of a return in many venues, sometimes due to lazy casualness, sometimes due to a change in etiquette in certain communities, but in others due to practical concerns (requirements for covered hair in food service work, etc…)

    However, the historical norms are rather a more complicated question, and it is most certainly not true to say that men have always removed their hats when indoors. It is largely true since the time period that business suites and tuxedos were more or less standardized in modern form, but prior to that it is rather more variable.

  9. un-ionized says:

    Stephen Matthew, in all the places I have lived in the US, at both coasts and in the middle, the wearing of hats indoors is looked upon as perfectly normal and if one mentions impropriety one is quickly marked an OLD person and BACKWARDS, though I am proud to be of the Emily Post generation. The baseball cap worn at table is the new norm, though not backwards, which is reserved for times when the “gentleman ” is more active, such as changing oil. I snicker.

    I was once badly beaten up and half strangled with my scarf by a fifth grade classmate because we had been on the school bus as a funeral procession went by and I didn’t remove my hat, as was proper for a girl, though all the others did and glared at me. Retribution followed the next day. New to the midwest, I chalked it up to culture rather than ignorance.

  10. lampada says:

    Were I to wear my ecclesiastical biretta during Mass, as a woman I would definitely leave it on the entire ceremony. It’s bad enough keeping an eye on one’s purse and other little things that you might not have trouser pockets to carry.

    [As a woman, you should never even consider wearing a biretta.]

  11. frjim4321 says:

    At graduations I would tend to keep my beretta either clipped to my belt or secured in the Pro Carry Quick Draw rig.

  12. VexillaRegis says:

    Dear Fr. Z, would it be OK for lampada to wear a NON-ecclasiastical biretta in church ;-)?

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