What’s the deal with the overalls you see university students wearing in Finland?

They’re a trademark of student life at Finnish universities: Durable overalls in various bright colours, decorated with imaginative patches and badges, contribute to a sense of community.

We’re at Åbo Akademi University in the southwestern Finnish city of Turku.

While other people in regular clothes walk by on their way to lectures or lunch, a group of 11 students has gathered at the new Aurum Building to show off their colourful overalls and share their insights about the special outfit. None of them is originally from Turku, and they represent ten different academic disciplines between them.

Students usually acquire the coveted overalls during their first year of studies. The colour depends on the university and the field of study.

“Biology students usually wear green overalls, medical students wear white and computer engineering students wear black ones,” says Jenny Ek, dressed in a dark green outfit. “However, the colours vary throughout Finland.”

The overalls are called haalarit in Finnish and halare in Swedish, which is also an official language in Finland. (Turku also has a Swedish-language name: Åbo.)

Intro to campus life

Four people wearing overalls and round white caps are smiling and jumping around, with a church tower visible in the background.

Dressed for a party: These students have donned their overalls to celebrate May Day (known as Vappu in Finnish) on Senate Square in Helsinki. The white high-school graduation caps have their own story.Photo: Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva

You’ll see people in overalls at many casual events, especially big ones, where they are the perfect way to recognise other students. They also help you keep warm at outdoor events and picnics if the weather is cool.

“We use the overalls to identify with our fellow groups of students and to show that we are part of the community,” says Julia Latva-Pirilä, a fourth-year pharmacy student.

“At bigger events and school visits, it’s a way of representing our university and our student organisation,” says Cecilia Dahl, who studies chemical engineering and has dyed her overalls a distinctive shade of light green.

Every autumn, the academic year begins with an introductory week for first-year students. It is filled with fun events to welcome the new arrivals and help them integrate into campus life. The older students who host the activities wear specific colours of overalls so the new people can find their way to the right group.

“During that week, each student organisation helps the freshmen order their own overalls,” says Joakim Stewen, a fourth-year computer engineering student.

Personalised memory

Eleven people in colourful overalls pose in front of a university building.

Student overalls are different colours depending on the person’s university and field of study.Photo: Catarina Stewen

Brand-new overalls are spotless and plain. It is up to the individual students to decorate and personalise them. “The overalls are like a clean canvas you can pour your personality into,” says Vilma Sumelius, who studies psychology.

You usually get patches for participating in student events, then stitch or glue them onto the overalls. Badges promoting hobbies, showing support for organisations or featuring funny messages are also common. You can swap part of a sleeve or leg with someone else’s overalls to add colour and display kinship.

“The overall becomes a cherished memory from your student years,” says William Törnqvist, a chemical engineering student wearing an outfit that is half green and half blue.

Magical confidence boost

Half a dozen people in pink overalls and round, white caps are having a picnic in a park filled with similarly festive picnickers.

On May 1, which is Labour Day and a national celebration of spring, students in overalls are visible all over the place.Photo: Roni Rekomaa/Lehtikuva

Sewing evenings and inauguration events help freshmen decorate their untarnished overalls and teach certain rules regarding the use. At the same time, these are occasions to socialise, ask for advice and make friends.

Everyone remembers how good it felt to put on their overalls for the first time.

“Wearing the overalls is a magical confidence boost,” says Jesper Öhman, who studies English language and literature. “With your overalls on, you are never alone. It is also a fail-proof icebreaker wherever you go. You can always talk about the overalls, even with people you don’t know.”

Niko Sandberg, a political sciences student, adds, “The overalls symbolise that you are a university student, and that always makes you proud.”

A city full of students

Eleven people in colourful outfits stand in a tight semicircle formation, each with one leg extended towards the middle of the circle.

Students personalise their overalls with patches and other decorations.Photo: Catarina Stewen

With multiple institutes of higher education, Turku is one of Finland’s major university towns. Young adults arrive every autumn from all around Finland and the world to attend one of the universities or polytechnics, and students make up about 20 percent of the city’s population of almost 200,000.

The assembled overall-clad students say that Turku is a great place to study because everything is within walking distance. The abundance of events lets you meet people from new places and make friends with people from other departments.

By Catarina Stewen, June 2023