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An essay by Charles Dudley Warner

The Cap And Gown

Title:     The Cap And Gown
Author: Charles Dudley Warner [More Titles by Warner]

One of the burning questions now in the colleges for the higher education of women is whether the undergraduates shall wear the cap and gown. The subject is a delicate one, and should not be confused with the broader one, what is the purpose of the higher education? Some hold that the purpose is to enable a woman to dispense with marriage, while others maintain that it is to fit a woman for the higher duties of the married life. The latter opinion will probably prevail, for it has nature on its side, and the course of history, and the imagination. But meantime the point of education is conceded, and whether a girl is to educate herself into single or double blessedness need not interfere with the consideration of the habit she is to wear during her college life. That is to be determined by weighing a variety of reasons.

Not the least of these is the consideration whether the cap-and-gown habit is becoming. If it is not becoming, it will not go, not even by an amendment to the Constitution of the United States; for woman's dress obeys always the higher law. Masculine opinion is of no value on this point, and the Drawer is aware of the fact that if it thinks the cap and gown becoming, it may imperil the cap-and-gown cause to say so; but the cold truth is that the habit gives a plain girl distinction, and a handsome girl gives the habit distinction. So that, aside from the mysterious working of feminine motive, which makes woman a law unto herself, there should be practical unanimity in regard to this habit. There is in the cap and gown a subtle suggestion of the union of learning with womanly charm that is very captivating to the imagination. On the other hand, all this may go for nothing with the girl herself, who is conscious of the possession of quite other powers and attractions in a varied and constantly changing toilet, which can reflect her moods from hour to hour. So that if it is admitted that this habit is almost universally becoming today, it might, in the inscrutable depths of the feminine nature--the something that education never can and never should change--be irksome tomorrow, and we can hardly imagine what a blight to a young spirit there might be in three hundred and sixty-five days of uniformity.

The devotees of the higher education will perhaps need to approach the subject from another point of view--namely, what they are willing to surrender in order to come into a distinctly scholastic influence. The cap and gown are scholastic emblems. Primarily they marked the student, and not alliance with any creed or vows to any religious order. They belong to the universities of learning, and today they have no more ecclesiastic meaning than do the gorgeous robes of the Oxford chancellor and vice-chancellor and the scarlet hood. From the scholarly side, then, if not from the dress side, there is much to be said for the cap and gown. They are badges of devotion, for the time being, to an intellectual life.

They help the mind in its effort to set itself apart to unworldly pursuits; they are indications of separateness from the prevailing fashions and frivolities. The girl who puts on the cap and gown devotes herself to the society which is avowedly in pursuit of a larger intellectual sympathy and a wider intellectual life. The enduring of this habit will have a confirming influence on her purposes, and help to keep her up to them. It is like the uniform to the soldier or the veil to the nun--a sign of separation and devotion. It is difficult in this age to keep any historic consciousness, any proper relations to the past. In the cap and gown the girl will at least feel that she is in the line of the traditions of pure learning. And there is also something of order and discipline in the uniforming of a community set apart for an unworldly purpose. Is it believed that three or four years of the kind of separateness marked by this habit in the life of a girl will rob her of any desirable womanly quality?

The cap and gown are only an emphasis of the purpose to devote a certain period to the higher life, and if they cannot be defended, then we may begin to be skeptical about the seriousness of the intention of a higher education. If the school is merely a method of passing the time until a certain event in the girl's life, she had better dress as if that event were the only one worth considering. But if she wishes to fit herself for the best married life, she may not disdain the help of the cap and gown in devoting herself to the highest culture. Of course education has its dangers, and the regalia of scholarship may increase them. While our cap-and-gown divinity is walking in the groves of Academia, apart from the ways of men, her sisters outside may be dancing and dressing into the affections of the marriageable men. But this is not the worst of it. The university girl may be educating herself out of sympathy with the ordinary possible husband. But this will carry its own cure. The educated girl will be so much more attractive in the long-run, will have so many more resources for making a life companionship agreeable, that she will be more and more in demand. And the young men, even those not expecting to take up a learned profession, will see the advantage of educating themselves up to the cap-and-gown level. We know that it is the office of the university to raise the standard of the college, and of the college to raise the standard of the high school. It will be the inevitable result that these young ladies, setting themselves apart for a period to the intellectual life, will raise the standard of the young men, and of married life generally. And there is nothing supercilious in the invitation of the cap-and-gown brigade to the young men to come up higher.

There is one humiliating objection made to the cap and gown-made by members of the gentle sex themselves--which cannot be passed by. It is of such a delicate nature, and involves such a disparagement of the sex in a vital point, that the Drawer hesitates to put it in words. It is said that the cap and gown will be used to cover untidiness, to conceal the makeshift of a disorderly and unsightly toilet. Undoubtedly the cap and gown are democratic, adopted probably to equalize the appearance of rich and poor in the same institution, where all are on an intellectual level. Perhaps the sex is not perfect; it may be that there are slovens (it is a brutal word) in that sex which is our poetic image of purity. But a neat and self-respecting girl will no more be slovenly under a scholastic gown than under any outward finery. If it is true that the sex would take cover in this way, and is liable to run down at the heel when it has a chance, then to the "examination" will have to be added a periodic "inspection," such as the West-Pointers submit to in regard to their uniforms. For the real idea of the cap and gown is to encourage discipline, order, and neatness. We fancy that it is the mission of woman in this generation to show the world that the tendency of woman to an intellectual life is not, as it used to be said it was, to untidy habits.

[The end]
Charles Dudley Warner's essay: The Cap And Gown