Honolulu Lite


Sunday, May 12, 2002

The historical dirty linen
beneath caps and gowns

The graduation ceremony that takes place when one has completed high school or college is an ancient rite of passage and like all rites of passage, it necessitates the wearing of funny or bizarre clothing.

Rites of passage always involve controversy, especially when they concern the piercing, tattooing, pruning or lopping off of certain body parts. Generally solemn occasions, graduations tend to bring out the jerkiness in people who feel compelled to embarrass themselves by making personal or political statements.

But it's not just the people graduating who go off the rails at these noteworthy times. An impressive amount of goofiness, anal-retentiveness and unnecessary rule-making has been associated with graduation ceremonies going back to the time of the Druids in the 12th century, when dressing up like a weirdo was not only widely embraced, but mandatory.

Gowns were the rage because, let's face it, when it comes to marking monumental achievements in their lives, guys historically liked to wear dresses. They may have called them "robes" or "gowns" but they were dresses. The Druids, who took themselves way too seriously, came up with all kinds of rules about the wearing of gowns: who could wear what color, what material they had to made from, their length and, no doubt, what one was supposed to wear UNDER the gown.

So it should be no surprise that such pickiness survives to this day as we have seen on Maui, where a 17-year-old high school girl insisted on wearing slacks under her graduation gown instead of the required dress. I'm sure Baldwin High School senior Ivy Kaanana had no idea that she was continuing a tradition whining about the rules regarding graduation garb stretching back to the Middle Ages when she refused to wear a dress under her, well, other dress.

I'm not sure how gown disputes in Celtic times were resolved but I suspect it involved a certain amount of bloodshed since just about everything else did in those days. I don't recall there being an ACLU (Angry Celtic Loonies Union) to step into the fray.

Luckily, since our ACLU today has corrected all the major abuses of civil rights in the country it can focus its considerable legal muscle on fashion spats and clothing-related imbroglios heretofore sadly glossed over by an unfeeling society. What a person is obligated to wear under a graduation gown might not seem like a major civil rights issue, at least not up there with "Miranda vs. Arizona" or suffrage, but, damn it, there's a legacy at stake here. The heritage of gown-wearing demands that any silly controversial detail, no matter how small, be raised during graduations.

Once the Druids had stopped arguing about gowns they apparently moved on to rules regarding the wearing of funny hats. That's the only possible reason we continue to wear beanies with spackle platters attached at modern graduations.

Of course, graduating wiseacres today use the flat-topped hats as billboards, writing or drawing on them to advertise their doltishness and antagonize their parents. They may think such shenanigans are fresh and new but being a pain the butt during rites of passage such as graduations is as old as Stonehenge and much less interesting.

Charles Memminger, winner of National Society of Newspaper Columnists awards, appears Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. E-mail

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