An unforeseen tradition: The story behind Alexandria’s hand-me-down graduation gown

An unforeseen tradition: The story behind Alexandria’s hand-me-down graduation gown
The hand-me-down graduation gown letter, signed box and gown, and cap with artwork by Mia Humphrey. (Photo/Katherine Hapgood

By Katherine Hapgood |

Five outstanding T.C. Williams High School students, five prestigious universities and colleges, two on-stage graduation performances – and one graduation gown. What began as an unplanned sharing of a typically once-worn garment has become has become an Alexandria tradition.

When Amanda Wilcox graduated from T.C. Williams in 2016, she thought nothing of handing her hardly worn graduation gown down to her close friend Anne-Marie Berens, who was a member of the T.C. Williams class of 2017.

Alexandria City High School, formerly called T.C. Williams High School, does not allow students to return their gowns, so the garment is usually worn once, unless given to someone in the next graduating class. “I didn’t really have a lot of sentimental attachment to my graduation gown, so I just thought I would give it to [Berens], since she wanted a blue graduation gown,” Wilcox said.

Berens made a similar offer to Jay Falk, T.C. Williams class of 2018, who know each other through their respective friendships with Wilcox. “I didn’t want to throw [the gown] out, and I didn’t want it to sit in my closet,” Berens said. Wilcox said she never thought her gown would go on to have a legacy of its own.

“I didn’t anticipate that it would get handed down to anyone beyond [Berens],” Wilcox said.

Over the past six years, the gown has been worn by five exemplary T.C. Williams graduates who would not all be connected if not for “The Hand-me-down Graduation Gown,” the name coined by Falk and Ana Humphrey, T.C. Williams class of 2019. All five girls excelled academically in high school, were involved in the community and earned spots at top schools across the country.

Wilcox graduated from Wake Forest University in 2020; Berens just graduated from The College of William and Mary in 2021; Falk just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2021; Humphrey is a current Harvard University student, class of 2023, while Ana Humphrey’s younger sister Mia Humphrey will be a freshman at Brown University in the fall.

The five students are all on different career paths. Wilcox works as a research assistant at the Federal Reserve’s International Division, while Berens hopes to work in advocacy or at a nonprofit, as she studied government and environmental science and policy. Falk is currently a teacher with Teach for America, planning to teach for the rest of her life in some capacity.

Ana Humphrey is a rising junior, studying astrophysics and physics, with plans to pursue a graduate degree, continue to research and perhaps become a professor. Mia Humphrey is a rising freshman, and plans to pursue a degree in modern culture and media studies with a minor in business economics. She plans to work in the film industry in some capacity after college.

Falk is the mastermind behind the gown’s tradition, according to the other four gown wearers.

“[The tradition] was totally happenstance. … [I thought] wouldn’t this be fun if we started handing it down?” Falk said.

When Ana Humphrey stopped by Falk’s home to pick up the gown in the spring of 2019, they organically decided to make the gown’s handing-down more formal.

“We sat down and made this box and taped it over… and we made a note to the future graduates, we wrote our initials on the top and wrote our signatures [in the box] of when we graduated and what school we were going to,” Falk said.

The only rule they made was that “the only thing [the next person] had to do was pass it down and not make the person pay for it,” according to Falk. The two also made sure to have Berens and Wilcox retroactively sign the cap, box and gown so that the history of the gown would be complete.

The decision of who to pass the gown down to next is at the discretion of the most recent recipient.

Ana Humphrey was chosen by Falk not only because she was a close friend, but because Falk saw her as “an inspiring person in general,” and she “loved her and thought she was a great person.”

Mia Humphrey, T.C. Williams High School class of 2021, the fifth wearer of the gown. (Photo/Mia Humphrey)

In turn, Ana Humphrey felt that “[Falk] took me under her wing. … I always remember feeling like [Falk] was someone I could go to.”

The pandemic threw the gown’s journey off-course, as there was no in-person graduation for the T.C. Williams class of 2020. However, this allowed Ana Humphrey to hand the gown directly down to her sister, Mia.

“It was really amazing to know [Mia] was wearing the same gown. … I hoped that maybe knowing the gown had gone through so many people maybe gave her a little bit of support to get over those initial nerves [of singing on stage at graduation],” Ana Humphrey said.

When Ana Humphrey, who was valedictorian of her class and a National Merit Scholar, spoke at her graduation ceremony in 2019, her nerves were calmed by knowing that in the same gown she wore on stage “ … people before me have done this and I know that even if they’re not here, they’re supporting me and wanting me to succeed here, they’re so proud that I’ve graduated.”

Amanda Wilcox, T.C. Williams High school class of 2016, the original owner of the gown. (Photo/Amanda Wilcox)

The meaning behind the gown continues to evolve with each person. Mia Humphrey felt wearing the gown “… was a really cool honor that I was a part of, because I feel like everyone that’s [worn the gown] has been super successful and passionate and driven.”

As the five T.C Williams alumni reminisced, they discussed the events the gown had lived through already. The gown has already been present for two presidencies, a global pandemic and now has outlived the name T.C. Williams High School. As of today, the school is now Alexandria City High School.

Mia Humphrey has already picked who from the ACHS class of 2022 will wear the gown. Directly after the graduation ceremony, Humphrey shared a moment with the next recipient of the gown.

“I was fresh off of the [graduation] stage, so it felt really important at that moment to [tell her about the gown],” Humphrey said.

Humphrey identified the person she wanted to hand the gown to by a couple of factors. “She’s the [student government] president, very driven, very organized, very passionate about what she does. She’s friendly. She’s nice. She has good taste in music. … She really stood out to me as someone who was really good to carry out the tradition,” Mia Humphrey said.

With that announcement from Humphrey, all eyes will be on the next recipient of the gown – Sabine Mead, ACHS class of 2022.