The Daily Gamecock

Column: Understand the history behind white dresses at graduation

Wearing white dresses underneath graduation gowns is a longstanding tradition, but it is important to know the history and significance of the white dresses before you wear one to graduation. 

Women at USC have taken part in this tradition for years as the school has seen generations of seniors come and go.

"I think it is definitely more of a tradition, just kind of like wearing white on your wedding day," said fourth-year retail student Chantz Wettstein, who works for Nordstrom. "It's kind of like an unspoken rule per se ... you don't really see other people not doing it." 

The traditional white gown for graduation has been a tradition since around the 19th century at schools across the country. One of its purposes is to create a more uniform look, but white also represents a connection to suffragettes and is synonymous with innocence, purity and the beginning of something new, according to the University of Southern California. 

Fashion trends have a direct correlation to events in history: creative and trendy clothing needs to work within the demands of society, according to Glenda Byers, a senior lecturer at the College of Charleston. 

One such correlation between clothing and the rest of society was between the color white and wealth. White is a difficult color to keep clean, therefore it was associated with status because only the rich could manage the upkeep, Byers said. 

While fashion started as a demonstration of socioeconomic status, it is now being used for self expression.

Today, people use their sense of style to express their personality, according to Byers. 

A prime example of using fashion as a form of self-expression was during the COVID-19 pandemic. While a mask covered half of a person’s face, fashion was used to demonstrate one’s personality, said the USC Fashion Board's President Maya Jordan.  

As well as a form of self-expression, fashion, especially during the pandemic, has a way of making connections with others, according to Jordan.

"Since you couldn't really see people's faces, fashion was a really good way to see 'oh that person has a similar fashion sense as me, we might get along,'" Jordan said. "Can connect people in ways we might not think about." 

Differentiating the style of white dresses worn under graduation gowns is an opportunity for students to express their personalities while still sticking with tradition. 

Wettstein said she is tempted to step outside the box and wear a nontraditional color to graduation. However, she is unsure as the tradition and history of wearing white seems too significant to overlook.

She also said that traditional white dresses can vary in in patterns and style.

“I would say strapless dresses, lace and the built-in belts has been super popular,” Wettstein said. 

Wearing white underneath graduation gowns has a rich history, which prompts one to ask if girls wear their white dresses for the meaning, or to simply follow fashion trends and what they've seen from past graduating classes. 

Knowing more about this tradition and history can amplify the meaning of graduation. 

Graduation is already a major life event, but having the full background of what your fashion choice symbolizes creates an additional sense of meaning and purpose behind one's wardrobe choice. 

With everyone wearing the identical cap and gown, having a unique dress underneath also displays a sense of personality. It is through this dress that women can appreciate the tradition of graduation while also having a form of self-expression through what lies under the gown, which is what fashion is focused on today.

While white graduation dresses are a longstanding tradition which will ideally continue; the future of commencement fashion trends are ultimately in the hands of the students.