Project LBD (Little Black Dress)

Angelina Jolie for St. John in a little black dress

Angelina Jolie for St. John

Scandinavia has varying codes of dress for the PhD viva voce, with Hanken in Finland being one of the most formal in terms of ceremonial rites and dress, up to and including how family members should dress and where they should sit during the event i.e. in the front rows of the examination hall. A brief extract from their website, translated from Swedish to English, on dress codes for the viva include:

The respondent chooses how s/he wants to be dressed and the opponent acts accordingly. For men, it is a choice between an evening dress or a dark suit. If tailcoats are chosen, the vests should be in black. In Finland, a PhD public defense is never conducted wearing a blazer or sweater. For women, the basic rule is that the dress or suit should be black. A white blouse and white accessories are fine. If you want to be hyper-correct, then wear only pearls as jewellery: they are white. At some colleges there are “defense caps” to borrow.

Opponent (the opponent) and kustos have their hats with the Act. They wear the hat on the left arm with the emblem facing forward during the entry and put the hat on the table in front of them when seated. The emblen on the hat should face the audience.

The family, friends and colleagues of the family should be slightly dressed-up. The next-of-kin should also be seated at the front of the examination hall. The viva however, is an open event and all who wish to attend can do so, regardless of dress. Acquaintances and those who intend to leave before the viva has finished, should be seated further back in the room, so that they can leave the hall without attracting attention.


I’ve read the above and several other notes from Swedish universities on procedures and dress codes during PhD vivas. I even came across pictures of a guy who wore a tailcoat to his viva!

While I don’t think the west-coast of Sweden is all too formal in terms of dress codes for the PhD viva voce, I thought it would be proper to follow some institution traditions and turn up in a short black dress for my own viva. So I swept through my closet hoping to find an appropriate black dress, and realized in horror that of all things, I had no LBD! Of course this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me since I’ve never favoured black as a colour for any outfit, thinking the colour too morose and sometimes, a little clichéd in the wardrobe. The concept of a LBD as a staple in any woman’s wardrobe is also over worked. But now, I need one and thought it’d be fun to pull up some favourite LBDs out there today.

On the top of my list is this body conscious (or bodycon) Black Mona stretch dress by Roland Mouret.

Roland Mouret black Mona stretch dress

The Victoria Beckham disciplined clean lines with pleated cap sleeves, panelled high waist signals proper and not too flashy. The hemline falls below the knee, which makes it perfect for board meetings or a regular day at work. One could pair if up with moderate platform stilettos for an evening out.

For LBDs that are a little non-conformist and structural in design, the pieces featured below from Junya Wantanabe (actually in a midnight navy blue) and Margiela have caught my eye.

Junya Wantanabe and Martin Margiela dresses

Left: Asymmetric pleated dress by Junya Wantanabe. Right: Draped dress by Maison Martin Margiela.

The pleated asymmetric dress from Junya Watanabe is simply interesting to look at. It has tight pleates both over and under draped folds, a single strap siting over the right shoulder and an asymmetric hemline that falls to the knee. It’s a dress construction that reminds me of what Harry Winston once said, “People will stare. Make it worth their while.” – although he was talking about his divine collection of jewellery and not in particular, a dress. Still, this Wantanabe piece is intriguing on several levels and if people got dead bored listening to the viva per se, perhaps they could start pondering the design of the dress instead?

The black dress from Margiela lends a similar intrigue with large draped batwing sleeves. It has an asymmetric form and it falls to the knees. This nod to the toga dress, I could see with chunky heels or gladiator heels.

Never one to completely follow school rules and having always been on the rebellious side, I can admit to wanting to wear bright fuschia pink heels with a black dress and have a full Legally Blonde viva session going!

Pink soled black patent pumps by Alexander McQueen

Of course, all eyes will be on the candidate on that day anyway, so there’s no real need for too much of a statement in dressing. A compromise between black heels and fuschia heels however, could be this Alexander McQueen pink soled patent pumps to the Roland Mouret black Mona dress.

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