In 1910, Bertha Cottrell Lee, wearing a black wool gown, graduated from Wellesley College.
On May 14, senior Whitney Weiss will graduate from SMU, wearing the same gown her great-grandmother, and more than 20 other family members, wore before her.
“I think it just kind of started,” Weiss, a Finance and Economics major, said of the 95-year-old tradition. Lee passed the gown to her children, and eventually it became a family heirloom.
Weiss’s grandfather, Lee’s son, wore the gown, but Weiss’s mother could not because her graduation conflicted with another relative’s.
“There’s big competition if people graduate the same year,” Weiss said.
With the honor of wearing the gown at stake, one might think the tradition would stir up trouble within the family if someone gets excluded.
“It has never caused any family arguments or issues,” Weiss said. “With conflicting schedules, the gown usually goes to the oldest member of the family.”
This year, Weiss and her cousin both get to wear the gown because their graduations are a week apart. Weiss’s mother will hand deliver the gown, which has never traveled by mail, to Pennsylvania for Weiss’ cousin’s commencement.
A recording of every wearer’s name, degree, school and graduation year is sewn into the gown on white fabric tape. The family had to add an extra cloth panel to accommodate all the information. They’ve also made a scrapbook with pictures and articles detailing each family member’s experience.
Weiss’ sister faced a challenge in her graduation from University of Virginia School of Architecture — white gowns. She solved the problem by walking with the liberal arts students, who wear black gowns, and attending the architecture school’s dinner, where students dress in white.
“Most schools are made aware of the situation beforehand,” Weiss said.
Weiss said she plans to continue the family tradition with her children.
“It is a symbol of the closeness of our family,” Weiss said. “It also represents a connection across generations and the value, to our family, of education.”