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The Essential Conference Clothes

As I started to travel to conferences, I often found myself faced with the “What should I wear?” dilemma. Being in my mid twenties, I didn’t want to give off the impression of being the “lost student” out there without any authority on the topic, nor did I want to dress like someone in their forties – and certainly I didn’t want to wrong type of attention you might get as a women in a men’s world.

While most advice online on what to wear to conferences and/or as a starting professor seems to focus on being neutral, I’m not too convinced about all the black, navy and grey that is being advised*. It’s not because you decided to be a scientist, that you should adhere to society’s impression that equates being a scientist to being boring!

Therefore, by all accounts, start from what you like wearing. Are you more comfortable in pants or do you prefer skirts and dresses? What colors do you naturally gravitate towards? I like wearing dresses, if necessary layered over long-sleeved t-shirts. As a result my natural choice would be a dress with a jacket. I prefer clothes with a lot of red and purple, so by no means I’d force myself to wear just navy, grey and black.

If you aren’t sure about what style would work for you, borrow some items from a friend, a parent or a sibling. If nobody is willing to send you off with their best clothes to a conference, then go and weed through thrift stores to look for items that you want to try out.

Over time, and after visiting a large number of conferences, I’ve come up with the following list of essential clothes for conferences:

1. Comfortable shoes

Aerosoles Roler Derby Pump

An obvious choice – you don’t want to be limping around because you can’t walk around an entire day on those heels. I swear by a pair of Naturalizer shoes and a pair of Aerosoles that I scored for about 30 bucks at DSW.

2. A white blouse

Alexander Wang Combo Blouse

A staple in every wardrobe: try to find a blouse that fits well at the shoulders, the arms, the waist and -please- does not bulge at the buttons.

3. A suit

BOSS Black Melange Jacket

An easy option if you want to test the waters at a conference. Comfortable, and it gives you so many options: you can dress it up and down with accessories, your choice of shirt and you can wear the separates too in different combinations.

4. Good jackets

Banana Republic Metallic Sweater Blazer - New sly stone

Whatever you wear, it looks instantly more dressed up if you add a jacket. Take enough time to find a few jackets that fit well and that are versatile, then start combining.

5. Tops

Jane Norman Floral Peplum Top

At my age, I think it’s OK to wear a more casual top combined with a suit or jacket, instead of opting for a blouse. I usually add a flowery top to a suit, to keep everything light and to add a bit of my liking and young age.

6. Conference dinner dress

Essentiel Candle Leaf Printed Silk Dress

Unless your conference is super-formal, I think that it’s acceptable to show a little more of your personal taste in the choice of your conference dinner dress. I typically opt for a printed dress, or an all-red dress – because that is what I like. And often the choice is a dress by Essentiel (a mildly affordable Belgian label).

7. Opaque tights

Wolford Individual 100 Leg Support Tights

If you go for dresses or skirts, tights are still a must at conferences. You might opt for bare legs, but I never do so, also because I like how tights flatten bumps and streamline everything.

8. A big purse

Village Convertible Leather Tote Bag, Brown - Cole Haan

Unless you want to drag the conference bag around the entire time, you need a large purse that can fit the conference program, notes, preparation material and whatever you like to have with you. I use an over-sized dark brown leather bag that I’ve had for many years, but I like how the leather is weathering.

If you want some inspiration, this post on My Laser Boyfriend has a lot of information, and great looks too.

*I might be biased as I was spent too much time wearing a grey – blue – white uniform during my schooldays.

What are your essential conference clothes? Do you have your favorites already, or are you still searching?

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This Post Has 12 Comments
  1. Cool post! I have a very different list. Maybe it depends on the field, but at the conferences I attend very few people wear suits, and shorts and sandals are not uncommon :). I like to feel it's a bit of a special occasion, so I at least bring a blazer and (comfortable) high heels, but wear those with more casual skirts or jeans.

  2. I have a collection of beige/black patterned (spots, zebra) jersey dresses that don't crush, require no ironing and take up no space. Can go straight to conference dinner in them! Have a pair if comfy heels as well (Campers) that I can wear all day. Always take a pashmina or wrap for cold air conditioning in sessions!

  3. I'm going as an undergraduate student to a Forensic Radiography conference, and I'm not sure what people in my field wear (as it's usually an NHS uniform at work); so I've been going spare wondering what to wear, as I'm the only undergrad I know going, so thank you for your post! I'm thinking of wearing a pair of flat navy pumps (I'm a navy person), a smart-casual top, skirt/and or trousers (weather permitting) and a navy jacket with tights. Does this sound appropriate?

  4. I always try to find photos from previous conferences and conference dinners to get an impression on how formal the dress code is. Or ask colleagues who have been to the conference before.

  5. Thanks for a great post. One thing I will add because I didn't even think of this until I got to my first summer ACS short course, don't forget to have some element of your outfit that can accommodate your clip-on name badge in a useful location. This is usually not a problem when the weather is cool (see: layers), but it's easy to forget during the stiflingly hot days of late summer. I always stuff a coordinating scarf into my bag for exactly this purpose, if I know I'm not likely to want to wear a cardigan or blazer. This a no-brainer for guys – they will almost always have a pocket well placed for this purpose. Women's tops, though, frequently offer no useful connection points, so keep that in mind.

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