The packing challenge
As if it is not already hard enough to dress for success as a female engineer. However, when your company sends you on a trip abroad things become even more challenging. Especially, when it means traveling to a country where women seem to be born with a style gene, like in Naples, Italy. As a business visitor, you want to show respect for your clients, and dress for the tasks required by your job. Moreover, as a foreigner you also don’t want to be recognized as a stranger or tourist for your own safety. In addition, what to pack also depends on the weather. Thus, looking stylish on a capsule wardrobe is not an easy task.
Consider the weather aspects
Unfortunately, local climate is what we expect and find in the travel brochures. However, at the locations, what we get is weather. This means you won’t have the July and August 77F (25oC) monthly mean temperature of Naples, for instance, every day you are in Naples in these months. There will be colder and hotter days than the mean monthly average. Furthermore, there is a diurnal course of temperature. This means that you can have much higher temperatures than the monthly mean during the day and much lower temperatures at night even on a day that by accident has a daily mean temperature of 77 F.
To pack the right clothes from a weather point of view, it is best to watch the forecast carefully and look for expected minimum and maximum temperatures. Typically, the 10 day weather forecast by the European Center for Medium-range Weather Forecasts is best as they are specialized therein. Unfortunately, weather forecasts beyond 10 days become very unreliable. Thus, when you have to stay longer, your best option is get an idea for the amplitude of the diurnal cycle. Often it is hard to find data of the lowest and highest temperature recorded ever since onset of observations. Often all one can find are the average mean minimum and maximum temperatures. In our example Naples, in July/August, these values would be 66 and 86F (19oC, 30oC), respectively. Again, they are averages, i.e. the real values can be higher or lower. Unfortunately, climate tables don’t list higher moments like the standard deviation. Such a value could give you the 63% likelihood within which ranges to expect your weather.
Another weather aspect is rain. In the example Naples, July and August have on average about 4 days with rain and the average monthly total is 1 inch (25 mm). Thus, a light trench coat is a good idea. I have one from Burberry Brit London that is packable into a 4 inch by 6 inch 1 inch flat zipper bag. This means it even fits into a work bag.
The average sunshine is 10 hours per day in these months. Sea temperature is about 79F (26oC). Thus, sunscreen and sunglasses are a must. If a weekend is included, a foldable hat, and swimsuit are good ideas when you are a beach girl.
Together these findings mean that clothes made of cotton, wickable UV protection fabrics or linen will provide good comfort. However, the latter wrinkles like crazy.
Respect the local dressing habits within the range of your company’s dress code
First, by all means stay within the limits of your company’s dress code. Someone may take photos and post them on the social media and may be followed by your supervisor. Thus, stay in the borders of the code, but adapt to the different weather and a bit to the country. Respect the dress code’s guidelines with respect to showing skin and everything that is related to safety.
Italians are famous for being very fashion-conscious. But they are also very respectful with respect to traditions. This fact is a piece of good news for any business visitor from the US because what can be more American than a clean dark pair of jeans.
Italian dress code: Adapt to where you go
Italians don’t have a formal dress code. However, they adapt what they wear to where they are going and what they are doing. Of course, you can interpret this as a dress code. It actually is a very tricky one, especially when you don’t know the places where you will go.
To get an idea of what this adaptation means, let me give you two everyday examples. Italian women won’t go out for dinner in Bermudas or super-mini, Keds and a t-shirt. Slacks and a button-down shirt with nice accessories and jewelry are the minimum to get away with as a woman. You may even get a look in a very fancy upscale and expensive restaurant. It is also a no-no to enter a cathedral with a sleeveless top or a trendy off-shoulder or cold-shoulder top. These shoulder-free styles are also a no-no at professional meetings.
For the meetings a summer business casual look is appropriate, for instance, dark straight jeans with a white button down shirt, a very good quality leather belt, and a light summer wool or cotton blazer. Of course, given the climate, a linen blazer would be best. However, they wrinkle easily, and wrinkles are never in style. Alternatively, instead of blue jeans you could go with white denim and a light blue button down shirt plus black or navy light summer wool blazer. A vertical striped button-down shirt in neutral colors is fine too.
Only when you are 100% sure that the meeting will be all inside you can wear pumps. But even when you are a petite, a medium high (2 inch at most) wedge would be better to get you on eye height than pumps, when you are not used to walk in heels. A pair of chic loafers or oxfords with a bit of heel (1 inch) are also fine when you don’t want to go for height (see low heel pumps and loafers in the photos).
The good news is that Italians are less tall than Americans. Thus, as a petite, the 2 inch will most likely do the trick. I am 5 ft 4 and it worked for me in the 80s and early 90s. I haven’t been in Italy since then.
With respect to the accessories, go classic. Gold color custom jewelry is fine, as is a 18 inch pearl necklace. Studs like a large sparkling Swarovski Rhinestone that looks like a diamond are fine or just single pearl studs or a gold knot or bead. When you go for pearl studs, go for a short metal necklace or short gold pendant. You don’t want to look to matchy match. Wear a watch with leather band or a very technical one or one in an unusual material. Show that you are interested in technique with your watch. One with stop functions would look cool.
Typically, kickoff meetings are followed by a reception with wine and appetizers or heavy hoer d’oeuvre. If the reception is immediately, after the last session of the meeting, business casual is fine, i.e. you wear what you wore at the meeting. However, when there is time in between the meeting adjourn and the reception of 30 minutes to an hour, a little black dress (not to fancy, but not too casual) with a statement necklace is fine. Dress or court shoes are o.k. unless the invitation provides a dress code. Then stick to it if you can and don’t violate your company’s dress code by doing so.
Field attire: Wear protective clothes for safety
In the field, safety comes first. Thus, skip the jewelry except for studs. On the trip to the field sides, khakis and jeans with a button down shirt are fine (any neutral solid color, vertical stripes). You may even get away with a chic polo shirt. In the field, wear what you would have to wear when you do it in the US. It’s an insurance question. You don’t want to loose the protection because you wore something that would be in violation with the dress code and safety requirements of your company. Thus, when you are to wear fire resistant clothes, a hard hat and iron toe boots, do so. You can put these pieces in the trunk of your rental car.
Regarding the makeup, go for a natural, barely there look, but it should be still clearly visible that you use makeup and take care of yourself. It’s how European professional woman do their makeup for work. While young women wear bright red when they go out or stroll in town, you don’t do a bright lipstick on the job unless you work in the beauty industry. A staining lip palm is a great option. It adds some color, you can do “touch-ups” casually on the road and it keeps your lips from drying out in the heat and from wind. If you use nail polish on your fingers go for clear, very light blush or nude. If you are up to the task and maintenance go for buffed short nails.
Use mascara as it opens the eyes and you look awake (which you are probably not because of the jet lack).
Don’t assume to have good internet access in hotels. In many European hotels, they charge you extra for internet access. Also don’t assume that you will have an iron. Some hotels do, some don’t have one in the closet. Thus, go for wrinkle free shirts. Pilot shirts for women are a great choice and are iron free cotton. The shoulder epaulets widen the shoulders which indirectly sends the message of strengths and power. That’s a good thing when you are in a male dominated setting. Because of the epaulets you can take off the blazer. Any military style inspired shirts do the same trick.
In the hinterlands, view are great and you may stop for photos. The road shoulders are often unpaved, i.e. just dirt and maybe some vegetation. Closed shoes are best on the trips to the field sites to not get dirty feet. Pay attention to always lock the car, even when you are just going 10 yards away! And, never let something visibly laying in the car. It is an invitation for thieves that may hang around in places that offer great views.
Here is some general advice for women engineers:
- Avoid tops/shirts with floral prints or anything that is girly or very feminine (e.g. lace).
- Plaid may be risky unless it is in neutral colors and clearly not punk. You also don’t want to look like your company send their lumberjack or cow girl.
- Add a matching belt when (a dress, skirt or) pants have belt loops.
- Remember, it is always better to be slightly overdressed than under-dressed. Being overdressed is seen as respect, while the opposite conveys the message “I don’t care.”
- Pants/jeans should fit well around your hips and you should be able to fold 1 -2 inch of fabric at the thighs. This way your pants loose enough. try straight jeans or boyfriends. Go for a dark wash. Never go for a dirty wash, because they look .. . dirty.
Check list for a business meeting/field trip
- Underwear, bra, shape wear, etc. Plan in some extra as you may need more due to the different food.
- Dark pairs of good jeans, Khakis
- Classic button down shirts (neutral solid colors, stripes). Watch the height of the second button and that the shirts are not too tight over your boobs.
- Well tailored LBD or its American version a (non-see thru) little white dress in a classic business cut (something the Duchess of Cambridge would wear in public) when a business dinner or reception (often called ice-breaker) is on the agenda
- Check whether they will provide you with a hard hat, fire resistant clothing, iron toe cap shoes/boots, safety glasses, gloves, when you need them for your work. If they don’t, pack your own.
- Diamond-like studs or pearl studs, statement necklace for meetings and reception/work dinners.
- Leather clutch for work dinners when they are not right away from the meeting to the dinning place.
- Work bag with all things you need to do your work
- Packable trench coat in case there will be a rainy day
- Socks for field work, meetings, bed
- Leather loafers, low wedges, oxfords, i.e. comfortable polished shoes you can stand and walk on all day.
- Two or more light summer blazers
- Rain jacket and sunglasses for the field
- Cosmetics, sunscreen, band aids, medication, tooth brush, paste, mouth wash, floss, shampoo, conditioned, etc.
- If a weekend is enclosed, pack according to what you plan to do, e.g. beach wear, outfits for sightseeing, vacation style clothes, etc.
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Photos of me: G. Kramm
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