2018 Update: We still stand by this advice on what to wear to a professional conference (and links have been updated below), but you may also want to check out our latest thinking on the PERFECT thing to wear to a conference, as well as the five things to bring to a conference. If you’re speaking at a professional conference, check out our latest post on what to wear for public speaking.
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?