What to Wear To… A Professional Conference

One of the most difficult things to figure out is what to wear to a professional conference. In theory, you’re there to network, meet your colleagues and the “superstars” of your field — and, of course, to learn a bit in the process. The whole process becomes a bit more confusing when you add the “vacation” vibe that many conferences strive for, by holding themselves in sunny places like Hawaii. It seems to us that you need to take a number of different considerations into account. (A lot of these problems are alleviated if you only attend conferences in Second Life.) For example:

1) Are your work colleagues going? If your work colleagues are going then, by default, you shouldn’t wear anything you wouldn’t wear to the office on a weekday.

2) Are you at all involved in running the event? Is one of your colleagues speaking? Is your company or firm sponsoring the event? If so, wear a suit. Depending on the kind of conference and the location, we might suggest a pantsuit rather than a skirt suit — you’re not interviewing, and, after all, you’re quite possibly doing glamorous things like manual labor.

3) What is your purpose in going? Even if it’s just to get a ton of professional credits while surreptitiously playing Brickbreaker all day, let’s pretend you’re there to network and meet people who can help advance/guide your career. Either way, we advise against pulling out the sweats you wore to your grad school classes.

No matter what, we would pack a blazer for the event — air conditioning frequently runs amok at conferences, and a blazer is a professional way to stay warm. Wear it with trouser jeans if you think the conference is uber casual; wear it with a jersey dress if you’re in hotter weather (Hawaii); wear it with trousers and a blouse if you think it’s business casual.

We would also recommend thinking of your entire visit, including your time on the plane and in your down time at the hotel, as “work” time — dress and act as professionally as possible (while, of course, having a nice time).

Readers, any other words of advice for professional conferences?

Comments

  1. I attend one or two out-of-town conferences a year, primarily for networking purposes, but occasionally for speaking. If I am speaking, I wear either a skirt suit or a dress with a jacket. Otherwise, during the day I go for separates, such as a simple printed silk v-neck blouse with a cream jacket with bracelet length sleeves, black trousers and black spectator type pumps. For evening conference functions, especially in warmer climates, I often wear a conservative sheath dress with slingbacks or black silk palazzo pants with a black silk shell and leather sandals with a chunkier heel (suitable for functions that involve walking on grass or sand), accessorized with a pashmina in red or cream.

    Regardless, I make an effort to wear colors at conferences so that I stand out in a sea of navy and grey. My favorite colors for a conference function are white/cream and a russet-tinged red (think of the russet sheath that Christy Turlington wore in the Ann Taylor fall ads a few years back). I find it helps to be the person that people can remember as “the woman in the white jacket” when there are 400 people at each cocktail function; it maximizes the recollection when you do your follow-ups after the conference is over.

    Oh, and I absolutely agree on the “work time” comment. I alternate cocktails with club and cranberries at functions to keep the “party” vibe going without looking like a stick-in-the-mud, but maintain a strict two alcoholic beverage maximum at events at conferences unless I am out with a group of people that I already know well from prior matters or functions or have blown off the official event to go out with personal friends (as opposed to professional contacts). I also find it useful to do meet-ups at conferences over coffee at breakfast time or in the afternoons as opposed to cocktails in the evenings so that I can get the serious contacts done in a more conducive setting.

  2. I would add – for the many many cocktail events, beware the LBD or any cocktail or party type dress or outfit. It is so tempting to change into what you would ordinarily wear “out” to dinner or a cocktail party, and not wear usual work clothes. However, I am in a very male dominated specialty, and the first time I wore a cocktail dress to an event, everyone assumed I was someone’s date. I now always wear a suit to cocktail parties, but add in a top that is dressier, a pretty color, but not revealing, then wear sparklier jewelery.

  3. Wear sleeves. Looks professional, avoids gooseflesh. Wear low heels. Very hard to carry the usual bags of swag and boxes of giveaways in high heels. And what Ms. B. said above.

  4. Number one thing for me is comfortable shoes. The work conference I attend every year pretty much consists of me standing up at receptions for 3 days straight. For my firm’s reception, I wear a skirt suit with heels, but for other people’s receptions, I usually wear pant suits with flats. I just can’t handle all day walking in heels.

  5. I would second Anne’s comments. I was recently at a cocktail party at a professional conference in Las Vegas (I also work in a male dominated specialty) and noticed that the women who were not dressed in suits etc. were treated as either dates or hostesses. As a younger woman, when in doubt, I always err on the side of dressing conservative. You can never go wrong wearing a suit with a fancier top underneath but I also have found that a black or jewel toned shift dress with a jacket and relatively conservative shoes will convey the same message.

  6. I love Ms. B’s comments! A+

    I would add that if you are going some where tropical and really want to “go tropical,” you can do it with a splash of color–a blouse, top or scarf. I tend to go a bit more on the business casual side–less suit and more separates, as per Ms B–you look more senior, sophisticated and confident that way.

    I also think an LBD can work if it is very very Jackie or Audrey, and top quality. Not wearing heels takes you away from date territory, too.

    Also, my go-to shoes for stand up events are either VanEli slingbacks with a one inch heel that extends the entire width of the shoe–not a kitten heel, or Talbots flats, which actually have a slight heel. Stuart Weitzman low heels also work.

  7. BEWARE the ABA (American Bar Association) – on the pamphlets they said “dress is corporate casual” “wear comfortable shoes for lots of walking” and really emphasized it. I showed up in pretty ballet flats, tan slacks, and a blazer, and was horribly underdressed. Everyone was wearing nice shiny black suits and pointy 3.5″ heels. liars.

    • I had the same experience at the ABA in 2010. “Resort wear” and “business casual” was very misleading as most female attendees wore suits (with skirts or sheath dresses rather than slacks) and heels.

  8. fullnelson :

    I usually do the black and white thing for a conference, matching black pants/skirt with a white/black jacket, and throwing in a colorful blouse, a striped t-shirt, and a basic white shirt for variety. Everything matches everything, and provides countless permutations and combinations, especially with some scarves and jewelry. When traveling, no matter how long the stay, I do all I can to stick to one carry-on bag that will fit under a plane seat; doing matching/coordinating separates helps me stick with this rule. I wear my jacket on the plane (gives me more room in the suitcase anyway), and always have one pair of comfortable flats for walking through the airport. As a final rule, I remember that I’m not at the conference to show off everything in my closet, just to look crisp and professional during my stay. I pity those who have to check a huge suitcase for a 3-day conference! Who has time to change clothes that often anyway?

  9. This isn’t in the clothes category, but I always pack a FedEx label addressed to myself with my office FedEx charge number filled in so I can send materials back to myself. Many conferences give you all the paper materials on CD, but it still seems like there are always books, materials, etc. to ship home. Plus it gives more leeway if you are able to go shopping or something before the trip home. . . . Worst case is you pack a label and don’t use it.
    Also, would note that you should be careful about the “down time” in a conference. Just because the conference is at a resort doesn’t mean you or your spouse should be walking through the lobby in swimsuits without cover-ups.

  10. I was just at the ABA conference as well. I took separates with a cardigan and wrap instead of a blazer and flats that went with everthing (fun color). I would categorize my wardrobe for the trip as business casual. Everything I took, though, I wear to work. I wish I had taken at least one suit for the meeting day and slacks instead of skirts for the rest of time when I was in CLEs where I was not presenting nor was someone from my firm presenting. I didn’t feel out of place, but I did feel “young.”

  11. Agreed about the ABA- if you don’t wear a formal suit, you will be horribly underdressed. In fact, every attorney conference that I have ever attended is the land of suits. Attorneys aren’t particularly creative or fashion-forward.

  12. I attended Heckerling (the big estate planning conference) in Miami a few years back (they have since moved it to Orlando). I mostly wore little dresses with sweaters over them – I certainly wasn’t presenting and didn’t need to network. I went to one evening function, where most people were in dresses with sweaters, or the J. Jill look for middle-aged women in the tropics (linen pants etc). The guys were wearing buttondowns and pants.

  13. I also work in a male dominated specialty and attend 1-2 national conferences a year. One of the conferences has a spa day for the female attorneys with a networking dinner and night of parties before the conference even officially starts. My female mentor advised me to wear professional dresses as opposed to suits to the evening events and the conference. I usually wear a suit to the conference itself but I do wear a dress to the events before the actual conference. I bought a couple from Elie Tahari that work perfectly. I also bought a couple of dresses from the Gilt Groupe sales that I use for this purpose. All of the dresses have sleeves, interesting patterns in darker jewel tones (although I also have a black turtleneck dress that I have worn with an interesting necklace and dark purple heels) and could be worn to court with a blazer or to a client meeting. I also bring and wear suits for the conference itself. I agree with the comment about wearing a color or something to distinguish you from the sea of black. Although I agree with the comments about comfortable shoes, I always wear heels- I just make sure that they are ones that I can last in for the day.

  14. Agree with the ABA comments completely! But I once attended a conference for municipal employees a few years ago and the invitation said business casual and there were people in jeans and flip-flops and shorts. It was a very warm city but it was air conditioned. . . . It was a good lesson — I now check around for past attendees I know and if I can’t find anyone, I call (or beg my secretary to call) the organizing organization and ask them what the dress code really means. If you can get a woman on the phone who actually works at the conference for the organization, you can get the straight scoop. Another option is to look for photos from the previous year’s conference on the organization’s website and see what people are wearing in the photos.

  15. What do women generally carry when attending a large conference. Handbag, tote or nothing? Thanks.

  16. In all the CLE conferences I’ve been to in Texas, dress has been business casual to dressy business casual with the exception of those running it or presenting who are in suits. I wish I had more dresses that I could wear a jacket over, because that look works really well at these events, but I don’t want to wear the same thing every time since I see a lot of the same people. The meeting rooms are also usually freezing, so factor that in when selecting what to wear.

  17. SO glad I read this before heading to my first ABA conference. The last conference I went to was on capital habeas – lots of public defenders and nonprofit lawyers in jeans, so my perspective was definitely skewed!

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