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Danish traditions For Members

EXPLAINED: Why do Danish school leavers wear white caps?

Emma Firth
Emma Firth - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: Why do Danish school leavers wear white caps?
Newly graduated students party at Storkespringvandet in Copenhagen in June 2022. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

During the month of June, you will start to notice a huge number of young people wearing white caps, probably while celebrating and partying with their friends. These are Denmark's school leavers and the caps they are wearing are far more than fancy dress.

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Denmark’s latest class of upper secondary school graduates or studenter are not hard to spot. They are often found riding in open-backed trucks blaring horns and music, jumping into water or drinking beers in cafés or parks, all while wearing a white cap (studenterhue).

The students spend up to two weeks celebrating the end of high school (gymnasium) and their final exams by taking a studenterkørsel: a trip around town on a colourfully-decorated truck, often emblazoned with innuendo-themed wordplays. The trucks stop at the homes of each class member, where parents provide food and drinks.

The party trucks may end after two weeks but the cap- wearing is something that carries on far into the summer.

Studenterkørsel

Newly graduated students party on a Studenterkørsel in Copenhagen. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

The history of the white cap

The original cap, which was black with a white rope band, emerged in the mid-19th century. From the 1880s onwards, the design changed to become the white silk cap of today, with a burgundy-coloured ribbon.

School graduation caps

Measurements for the studenterhuer. Photo: Hakon Nielsen/Ritzau Scanpix

Female students started wearing the caps during the 1930s. At that time, the number of young Danes graduating from gymnasium was relatively low so the cap was seen as a status symbol and the young studenter would continue to wear the cap for the entire summer, prior to starting their university studies.

This still happens today, which is why you'll spend the whole summer spotting young people and their white caps. However it is considered unlucky to wear the cap before the final exam is over.

Why are there numbers inside the caps?

The number inside the graduation cap is the grade the student got for their final exam.

Denmark uses a 7-point grade system. The grades range from -3, 00, 02, 4, 7, 10, 12 with 12 being the highest, equivalent to an A and -3 being the lowest, equivalent to am F.  02 is the minimum grade for passing an exam.

Students with the highest grade on their last exam have to run after the party truck until the first stop.

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What do the coloured ribbons mean?

The variety of cap styles has increased over the decades and now there are different emblems and ribbons. The traditional emblem was a cross but many students change the cross for a different symbol depending on their beliefs, or some decide to change it to show a particular talent, such as a treble clef for someone musical or Olympic torch for a student who excels in sport.

The ribbons around the bottom of the cap show what kind of education the teenagers have completed. For example:

Burgundy ribbon: Three years of traditional high school education (gymnasium)

Sky blue ribbon: Two years of traditional gymnasium education

Royal blue ribbon: Trade education

Marine blue ribbon: Technical education

National flags on the ribbon: International education

School graduation cap

A traditional studenterhue, with a cross emblem and burgundy ribbon. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

Why are the caps so special to the students? 

The caps record a rite of passage. Dares, challenges and party-related mishaps are all recorded on the inside of the caps during the celebrations of the summer. 

School graduation caps

Newly graduated students party at Storkespringvandet in Copenhagen, June 2022. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

Jumping into the sea wearing nothing but the cap can earn the student a wave-shaped cut in its inner lining, for example. A cut into the peak might mean that the wearer stayed up partying until sunrise.

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The hat is also waterproof, meaning it is often used as a drinking cup and students can get at least one free drink in bars and clubs while wearing their hat.

Traditions for marking hats with reminders of holiday revelry may vary locally and change over time, but one thing is constant and that is the messages inside. Friends and teachers write their good luck wishes on the linings of the caps, so the school leavers remember each other when, years later, they look back at their worn-out caps, found on bookcases or shelves in many a Danish home. 

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