By Marie DeNoia Aronsohn
They are at home coring trees in the backcountry of Mongolia, flying airborne missions over polar ice caps, or drilling sediments while dodging icebergs off the coast of Antarctica. They are leaders in their fields and always know exactly what to wear on these expeditions. However, when confronted with the prospect of dressing for a unique formal event, they weren’t willing to settle for commercially available designer dresses. They wanted outfits that truly reflect who they are as women scientists with profound connections to the planet.
While dressing for an awards banquet hosted by the American Geophysical Union (AGU), four scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory decided to boldly go where few science-minded fashionistas have gone before: into the world of custom design.
“We wanted science-inspired dresses that represent us as powerful women in science, giving a subtle—or maybe not so subtle—nod to the warrior in each of us that allowed our rise in the ranks of a field dominated by men,” said Lamont tree ring scientist Nicole Davi.
Davi, along with Lamont polar pioneer and AGU president Robin Bell, celebrated paleoclimatologist Maureen Raymo, and Lamont research professor Rosanne D’Arrigo showed off their custom-designed, science-themed outfits at the AGU Honors Banquet on December 11, 2019, in San Francisco. The AGU is the largest professional Earth science organization in the United States, with over 65,000 members and an annual conference with 28,000 scientists in attendance.
During the awards ceremony, Bell, as president, was on stage presenting highly prestigious scientific medals and Fellows recognition to several women. Topping the list and receiving one of the most prestigious of AGU awards was Raymo, who received the Ewing Medal, named for Lamont founding director Maurice “Doc” Ewing. D’Arrigo was named a 2019 Fellow, also a huge honor.
Each researcher found a way to create a signature style to match the occasion. Davi went to high-end New York City designer Jussara Lee, who is known for her sustainable, custom-made clothing. Bell, who has been developing custom-printed fabrics, worked with Nyack dressmaker and shop owner Maria Luisa Whittingham. D’Arrigo added a special Robin Bell-designed scarf to her ensemble. Raymo showcased another of her unique gifts and designed her dress herself, then enlisted seamstress Lisa Oliviere to realize her vision.
“Science is a beautiful and personal endeavor. That’s what I wanted my outfit to convey,” said Raymo.
Davi’s evening dress started as a cast-off from her closet. However, Jussara Lee’s artistry and Bell’s digitally printed fabric gave the garment new life. Specifically, Davi pulled a high-resolution image of a tree ring originally sampled by A.E. Douglass, the founder of dendrochronology. The sample was taken from a tree in an elaborate ruin in the American southwest called Pueblo Bonito. Bell printed the image onto fabric. Lee embroidered the dress and created false pleats with the fabric. To Davi, the tree ring print gave her gown a sense of style that resonated with who she is and what she wanted her clothes to say— especially that night.
“It was thrilling. Not only because the dress was beautiful and it represented my science, but because I was wearing it for an event where amazing women were being recognized for their scientific contributions,” said Davi.
Bell’s custom-printed fabric depicts mountains and water flowing in Antarctica. Whittingham incorporated the fabric into the bias-cut skirt. “It is really an educational dress portraying Robin’s work and creating conversations about sustainability,” said Whittingham. “When someone sees the print and naturally asks what it is, she can begin to explain her extraordinary research.”
“Science is so beautiful,” said Bell. “I feel honored to have another way to share the wonder and beauty of our science and our planet.”