QUEENSBURY ♦ While most graduates walk across a stage in generic gowns, Ally Petta picked up her college diploma recently in academic dress that had a family provenance dating back 99 years.
The 2008 Queensbury High School alumna, who graduated from Wake Forest University in May, wore the same black garb her great-grandfather, James Hathaway Coon, donned when he received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1913.
Ally’s great-grandmother also wore it in 1922 during her commencement ceremony at Emerson College, and her grandmother and all seven of her siblings graduated in it. The gown has become a badge of honor for between 40 and 50 family members ever since.
Embroidered on the yoke, both front and back, and along the sleeves, are the initials of each student, the name of the college and the graduation year.
Ally’s mother, Priscilla, of Queensbury, said all the embroidery was done on the inside but as time has gone on, it has become like a piece of art as names have been added, so the graduates started wearing it inside out so everyone could see it.
Ally, the most recent graduate, spoke at her baccalaureate ceremony the day before graduation and her attire prompted many curious professors, students and onlookers to ask about its history.
She said she was proud to display the numerous schools attended by multiple generations of her family, including Alfred University, Amherst College, Boston University, Cornell University, Skidmore College, Whitman College and the University of Washington.
“Despite different decades, states, universities and degrees, I was in awe at how empowered I felt representing so many graduates on my mom’s side,” she said by email.
Priscilla was fortunate enough to wear it twice, at SUNY Binghamton in 1983 and when she received her MBA from the University of Notre Dame four years later.
Now that there are so many graduates and so little space left on the robe for embroidery, only those receiving their undergraduate degrees can wear it. Even so, not every relative has had the privilege if more than one graduation was scheduled for the same weekend.
About 10 years ago, the cotton gown began to show its age after being put into service and traveling bi-coastally so many times. One of Priscilla’s cousins had it professionally repaired at a clothing museum by a curator, who recommended retiring it and only allowing graduates to be photographed with it on.
The family is loathe to give up the tradition, however, so the gown continues to be carefully worn in one milestone celebration after the other and preserved in special archival tissue paper for shipment to different households.
Priscilla’s uncle has taken the custom a step further by including a notebook with the legacy. The lucky graduate writes a page or two about his or her college experience and what it means to wear the gown.
Priscilla has thought ahead to her younger daughter Nicole’s college graduation in six years, and if the black robe can still be worn without coming apart at the seams, she will have it on. At the very least she will be photographed in the garb embroidered with her initials and she’ll record her impressions in the notebook.
It is, after all, a family tradition.