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Monday, June 10, 2024

Why do people wear white to graduation?

The history behind the unspoken tradition of wearing white for life milestones 


By LORENA ALVAREZ — arts@theaggie.org 


With graduation around the corner, many students are in search of the perfect white dress to pair with their stoles, cords and navy cap and gown. The question still remains though, why do graduating students put so much effort into finding the “perfect” white dress for their graduation ceremony and pictures? The Aggie decided to explore this more in-depth, piecing together the history behind the tradition of wearing white for milestones while also working in commentary from members of UC Davis’ Fashion and Design Society (FADS). 

Although wearing white to weddings is a controversial “rule,” this tradition did not begin until “1840, when Queen Victoria defied the usual practice by wearing a white dress to her wedding,” according to The Washington Post. Before Queen Victoria, wearing white to milestones was unconventional and not the standard that it is today. Queen Victoria may have set the curve for this time, but it still doesn’t fully answer the question of why graduating students across America choose to wear white for graduation today. 

Pachia Vang, the cultural studies of fashion and textile surface design: patterns and resists lecturer, spoke about the cultural meanings behind the color white. 

“White means different things in different cultures and contexts,” Vang said. “In the West, it has generally represented purity and is seen as a blank slate for new beginnings. This is why brides wear the color for weddings as they enter into new phases in their lives. We also see the color adopted as a form of feminism, worn by suffragists and continuing to influence the women in Congress today who will wear white pants suits in solidarity with one another.”

That said, Vang also acknowledged that in some cultures, white is not appropriate attire for every occasion.

“In some Asian cultures, however, white can represent death, which is also a type of new beginning,” Vang said. “These different contexts influence why people may choose to wear or not wear white for certain occasions.”

Expanding on the idea that color holds specific meanings, Julia Dang, the executive director and president of FADS and fourth-year design and English double major, noted clothing’s value.

“Fashion and clothing is your way of showing your personality and your emotions from the inside out,” Dang said. “It’s an unsustainable environment and industry, but we [FADS] push for sustainability, creativity and innovation.”

As a Vietnamese-American, Dang went on to comment on the traditional clothing practices in Vietnam, noting a story her mom told her while growing up about how she felt following her school’s dress-code.

“Traditionally when you are in school, in Vietnam, you wear an Áo dài,” Dang said. “[An Áo dài] is a traditional style white tunic dress for girls. It shows that you are capable of being feminine but also powerful in pursuing education. I remember my mom saying that If she didn’t get her dress dirty in school, she’d be like, ‘I did all of these activities, I participated in these chem experiments with my classmates, but I was still able to keep it clean.’” 

When asked why she thought many students gravitate towards white graduation dresses, Dang noted UC Davis’ school colors. 

“White matches most with UC Davis’ gold and blue,” Dang said. “White just matches best under a robe, it shows through more than other colors.”

FADS’ Chief of Internal Affairs, Irena Song, a design major with an emphasis in fashion, noted the trend’s dominance in student culture and how white dresses have become a symbol for graduation.

“When you take photos or when you’re standing next to each other, it looks very cohesive,” Song said. “When you choose one consistent color, it looks like they’re graduating. For example, when you see girls wearing white dresses around campus and see the photographer, you know they’re graduating without even needing to see their stole. The trend is for unity and to mark the occasion.” 

She continued talking about how students can add their own touch to their attire despite their choice to follow the trend, speaking about the value of wearing accessories that hold sentimental value. 

“Wearing something that feels meaningful to you, in terms of accessories, is a great way to show your personality,” Song said.

Eesha Bhagwat, one of the FADS officers and a fourth-year neurology, physiology and biology major, noted how graduates could add their unique style while still following the tradition.

“A cool thing to do would be to really go all in on the makeup and do really like out there kind of eyeshadow, like jazz it up rather than just a clean look,” Bhagwat said. 

She went on to note that wearing a white dress is a celebratory tradition that does not transcend people’s style or achievements. 

“When it comes to graduation, this moment is bigger than what you want to wear,” Bhagwat said. “You’re celebrating something you’ve worked so hard for. I hope people don’t get lost in that alone and forget that you can do what and wear whatever you want.”

While wearing white to graduation is an easy way to show unity and ensure that the attire pairs well with UC Davis’ cap and gown, graduation ceremonies are much more than just simply picking up your diploma. Graduation is a time to come together with friends and family to celebrate graduates’ accomplishments, whether that be through traditional cultural clothing or a minimalist dress. 


Written by: Lorena Alvarez — arts@theaggie.org 


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