OMG, I was wearing a black leather skirt and a red blouse with black pumps when I gave my first presentation at a conference in Oxford at the Rutherford Laboratories as a graduate student in 1987! My adviser had told me to wear a black skirt and a blouse. The only black skirt I had was a black leather skirt and I already was not into blouses back then. Thus, that red blouse was the only one I owned. I am not sure, but I believe it still was a gift from my late grandma Hannah who was already dead about five years at that time.
Recall, it’s always better to be over- than under-dressed, especially when you are a graduate student as I was when I attended my first conference as a speaker. In academia, business casual wearing a dark, not pre-washed pair of jeans with a button-down shirt, blazer and dress shoes is totally appropriate. Guys may wear a tie, but at least in America I would always recommend to go for a bolero tie. While they are more expensive, they fit better in when everyone else wears a tie, because bolero ties are more expensive. They fit well in also when everyone else wears no tie at all.
What not to wear
No matter what season or what the climate of the conference location is, flip flops, Birkenstocks, or sneakers plus shorts and a T-shirt are never an appropriate choice. It reads, I can’t wait until I get out of this session to finally enjoy the great outdoors of this awesome conference location.
Pack with the weather in mind
Make yourself familiar what kind of climate your conference region has, and what is the weather forecast. Also look at the variability of the climate (minima and maxima of temperature, likelihood of precipitation, etc.). Pack with this knowledge in mind.
Styling tips for a science conference
For women scientists, skirts and dresses are fine, but steer clear away from everything that is shorter than a hand width over your knees. Italian length, i.e. just hitting your knee is best. Skirts ride up when you sit down and you don’t want to be remembered for your great legs, but for the great talk you gave. As a general rule, no cleavage for a similar reason 😉 , A nice blazer with dark jeans, a knitted silk top, even a high quality T-shirt with scarf are fine too when you are a physical scientist (read meteorology, geophysics, physics, planetary sciences).
Dress to impress
If it is the first time you are a speaker, remember the first impression can be nearly as important as your first talk. Avoid large jewelry, and busy prints. If the conference room is large, the likelihood that the speaker will be projected on screens is large too. Thus, also avoid hounds tooth. You don’t want to make your audience dizzy. Make sure your hair is not hiding your face. It may be conceived as insecure or too flirty.
Wear heels to be seen
If you are more on the petite side 5’4″ (1.65 m) it may be a good thing to wear heels so you are closer to eye contact with your male colleagues. Exercise to walk in your heels, i.e. do not wear brand new heels to the conference. You don’t want that after a day running from session to session in a large congress center like the Moscone Center in San Francisco, even the blisters on your feet have blisters. Moreover, you do not want to look ridiculous when walking and standing in heels. As an Argentine tango dancer, I am used to walk and dance several hours on 4.5 inch (11.4 cm) heels. But I go for a comfortable 2.5 inch heel at conferences. When walking in heels always commit to put your weight onto the ball of your foot. This is easy when you shift your stepping hip forward.
Posture is key
Sorry ladies, but I strongly believe that it is important to “stand like a man” to get respect when giving a talk. This means feet slightly apart, shoulders square (I use padded shoulders in my blazer), head up, stand tight and tall, don’t twill your hair, and no red lips.
Most importantly, make sure you feel confident in your clothes and not like Judy in disguise. It is o.k. to have one signature item that displays your personality in your professional outfit. In my case, it is a studded bracelet and a pearl necklace. It is important that you feel comfortable as that comes across as being confident.
No suit over 40
Styling a suit in a fashion forward way is a great option for women scientists under 40. If you are over 40 and look younger than 40, ditch the suit. You don’t want to stand in front of a poster that is first authored by your student and coauthored by you and be asked whether your supervisor is at the conference too. If you don’t look younger than 40, but are over 40 ditch the suit anyway. A suit makes you look old fashioned. That’s not the right message when you are in a field that’s about pushing the envelop. Instead, go for an unmatched suit. See this guide on how to style an unmatched suit.
Fashion and clothes tips for conference attendees
And here some general advise for everyone who attends a conference:
- Pack clothes that work for both standing and sitting, and won’t wrinkle. Only if the conference is in the Tropics linen is a good choice as humidity suppresses a bit the wrinkling of linen
- Bring at least one outfit more than the conference will last. Someone may spill their drink or meal over your blazer or onto your outfit at the reception, conference dinner or just in the coffee break. Recall scientists are nerdy and fly in a different dimension (most of the time)
- Go for dark colors as wrinkles are less visible when the items are dark than light
- Conference rooms usually are über-air-conditioned as conveners overestimate the number of people that will attend their session, especially in times of short funding. Consequently, the rooms are too cold as their thermostats are set with more attendees in mind. You don’t want to bring home a cold as a conference souvenir, do you? 😉 Thus, always have a cardigan or blazer handy even when the outside temperatures are way over 80F (26.7C)
- Wear your name tag and have safety pins ready to attach the name tag to your clothes. The hanging around your neck name tags tilt, hang at belly button height, both of which is just awkward when someone, especially male colleagues, actually care about reading your name
Enjoy your conference and make as many connections as possible. Networking is key. Have your business card ready. The photos in this post provide some inspirations about what works at conferences in physics related sciences.
If you are in engineering or a discipline that is less casual than sciences you may be interested in reading this Dress 4 Success in engineering advice.
What are uour dressing challenges? Let me know by email so I can address them in a future post.
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Photos: G. Kramm
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