Disrupting fashion in academia

2017-10-25

Chronicle by Rossana Pettersén about how she ended up disrupting fashion in academia by wearing a tuxedo.

Someone said “Style shows who you are without words”. This assertion may be controversial but something that is sure is that our outfits are a big component influencing how people perceive us, especially when we are in the center of attention. This is my story about how I, as a woman, ended up disrupting fashion in academia by wearing a tuxedo.

My mind immediately reacted. That’s it!! Of course I did not want to stand in front of the audience, defending my hard-earned thesis, looking “cute”.

For my dissertation I wanted to feel confident, elegant, innovative and also comfortable. I did not want to leave my outfit choice to the last minute so I planned it carefully. Coming from Latin America, putting an extra effort into how I dress for work had already been my standard. My colleagues, administrative staff and the students that I got to lecture, had all seen me wearing dresses or trendy outfits during my PhD years at the Karolinska Institute. However, choosing another dress or a skirt did not appeal to me as interesting enough.

Something that gave me a great idea was a well-intended compliment from a supervisor who said “You look cute in dresses”. My mind immediately reacted. That’s it!! Of course I did not want to stand in front of the audience, defending my hard-earned thesis, looking “cute”. I wanted to look bold and confident but still be myself.

Later that day, I went to a famous and mainly masculine suit store in Stockholm. With the help of an enthusiastic sales assistant I chose a dark grey suit in a gorgeous contemporary cut. I had their tailors fit me the suit to perfection and I complemented it with a crisp white shirt, a pale pink bow tie, high heels and cufflinks.

I received many compliments on the elegance and boldness of my outfit. Almost as many as the compliments I received for my defense, I must say.

I thought that my somehow androgynous look might raise some eyebrows but all the opposite happened. I received many compliments on the elegance and boldness of my outfit. Almost as many as the compliments I received for my defense, I must say. My look on the dissertation day was a topic of conversations for some months and it rose questions about how personality and cultural background influence our choice of work outfits, on how often female scientists digress from the standard feminine look and how this is interpreted, and also how immersed we scientists are in the highly innovative atmosphere that Stockholm provides.

In all my years going to dissertations, I’ve seen female defendants wearing everything from blue jeans miniskirts to very formal dresses. Discussants showing up with khaki pants or wearing full university regalia. In the end, I think the message I get is that no matter what I chose to wear in academia, the outfits give me a chance to show my personality.