After photographing nearly a dozen graduation ceremonies every year, the staff of the Lodi News-Sentinel is something of an expert on graduation outfits (and songs, and speeches, and tearful hugs, and that kid in the back row who is obviously blowing up a beach ball right now).
That got us thinking: Are these ceremonies yet another historically formal event that has fallen under the weight of a casual society? Or is graduation one of the final bastions of dress pants, up on a pedestal with weddings, funerals and dream job interviews?
To answer, let’s consider how graduates dressed this year.
Public schools don’t have much of a dress code, but your principal does have expectations for this solemn event. Without fail, every high school graduate was decked out in that calf length polyester gown. Traditional commencement style dictates the whole class sticks together in school colors. Liberty High School, Independence High School and Lodi High School all had their ladies in white. Girls at Tokay High School wore purple. Their male counterparts were in sky blue, royal blue, red and gold at each ceremony. Boys and girls of Jim Elliot High School sported hunter green.
There is no personality to be found in the cap and gown. No matter the color, it was probably made by Herff Jones and will hang in your closet until you retire.
The gowns are sleek, uniform, and go so well with those tasseled mortarboard hats. But to a high school senior eager to showcase his or her individuality, sharing the same look with every kid in the bleachers is not ideal.
That’s why the details matter. During the ceremony, only a student’s feet, face, hands and hair are visible. Those features are what stood out.
Girls graduating from Lodi or Tokay High may have missed out on the Grape Bowl tradition, but holding the ceremony indoors means heeled shoes made a major showing.
Ladies customized with tall statement heels, colorful wedges and metallic gladiator sandals. Some showed off country roots with chunky cowboy boots. Bracelets glittered on their wrists and rings glinted on their fingers.
Hairstyles allowed for some self expression, but it’s hard to fit a braid or updo under a hat. Females let their hair down, tamed it with curling irons and straighteners, and stashed away an extra bobby pin or two for cap emergencies.
Boys had an easier time. Moms are quick to smile when they see their sons in slacks, an ironed shirt, and what might be the first tie he has ever purchased. Some guys tried to pull off the nice pants/cool sneakers look. They did okay.
The young men were much more likely to underdress than the young women. Many a shaggy head of hair was uncombed, Several boys were clearly wearing shorts and whatever shoes were closest to the door when he left the house. Conversely, it was the women who leaned toward going overboard on the formality scale. It was easy to see how a few of their gowns could have worked for Prom in a pinch. We’d bet a handful of them even got their hair done by a stylist for the evening.
At least all the graduates shied away from jeans. This is a celebration of academic achievement, not a backyard barbecue, though they may end up at one later. A majority seemed to follow the church rule: If you would wear it to a Sunday service with Grandma, you can probably wear it to graduation.
Outfits in the audience had the same sense of disparity. Some moms were in pearls and sundresses, while dads sported the nice khakis and brown loafers. Others were in jeans, flip flops and their favorite high school T-shirts. But can you blame them, at least during the outdoor ceremonies?
So perhaps these traditional events are only mostly formal in this century. When you look at photos from graduation in fifteen or twenty years, any pair of shoes will be completely un-hip, no matter how many magazines featured the style in 2013.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.