Saturday, October 20, 2012

How to dress for a conference like a fashionable lady scientist

Ah, conferences. They can be fantastic opportunities to get out of the lab, showcase your research, as well as meet and interact with your peers, collaborators and possibly arch nemeses. Conferences can also trigger some anxiety and social awkwardness. Still, you want to leave a good impression. You want to look your best AND you want to look like you give a shit.

If you spend any time researching proper attire for these conferences, you'll run into all kinds of unhelpful advice like "Dress for success" or "Dress for the job you want." What does that even mean? What am I supposed to wear?

As a grad student and postdoc I was lucky enough to attend a LOT of conferences. I found the specific dress codes for scientific conferences range depending on size, where and when the conference is held, the field, and even age and academic level.

For men, it's easy.  In my field of academic science & engineering, international conferences  in Europe and Asia are generally more conservative and men dress in business attire, so a full suit is appropriate, especially when presenting a talk. Smaller U.S. conferences are typically business-causal, which for a man can range from dress slacks with dress shirt and dress shoes or even dark denim and a casual button-up shirt. If they work for a government lab, their uniform is khakis and a polo shirt. (I swear those guys all look the same! It's so weird!)

from The Loft

For women, clothing requirements are ambiguous and options seemingly infinite.  And, as much as we hate it, women can still be judged harshly for their looks in a male-dominated scientific community. Even by other women! At the time of putting this post together, attendees of the recent Society for Neuroscience conference caused a minor stir online after accusing fellow female scientists of looking like slutty secretaries or being too unattractive.

I doubt there are many female scientists who go to a conference and intentionally dress sexy for male attention, or intentionally dress on the frumpy side because they're ashamed of their femininity. Maybe they just don't know how their outfit comes across to others. Maybe they said to themselves, "This is what I have, so it is good enough." Or "I'm a scientist. Who cares what I'm wearing?" Truth is, people do care (at least a little bit). And you should too (at least a little bit).

It's not vain to want to look feminine and fashionable. It's more about feeling confident and putting your best foot forward. The bottom line is really, wear what you feel confident and comfortable in.

blouse from The Loft

Yet, as a lady scientist, it can be difficult to know specifically what's appropriate, where to shop, or how to put together versatile outfits. Scientifically-driven women like ourselves may not be up-to-date with the latest trends at all, or even care to be. If you're spending all your time wearing jeans and sneakers in the lab, you may not necessarily have a good stock of dressy outfits to bring to a week-long conference. And if all your labmates and coworkers are guys, they're probably not the ones to go to for fashion advice.

Outfit from The Gap

There's definitely a lot of gray area on what looks good and works and what's inappropriate and doesn't work. Now that I'm in my thirties and a postdoc, I like to use every upcoming conference as an excuse to upgrade my tomboyish college wardrobe. A professional conference is the perfect venue to look like a sophisticated, classy, feminine version of myself. I figure I already stand-out by being female in the first place, why hide it trying to dress like one-of-the-guys?

I learned through observations and some trial-and-error experimentation to find out what works for my body and comfort level. Like a scientist.

Blouse and pencil skirt from J. Crew

I will freely admit: I hate shopping, especially clothes shopping.  But shopping with a purpose and knowing what I'm looking for makes it much easier.

So, to help other lady scientists who are looking for advice on what to wear, I polled a few of my gorgeous yet brilliant lady scientist friends for some tips on choosing appropriate, fashionable outfits for science conferences, which I'm compiling here. What follows is a comprehensive boat-load of unsolicited fashion advice.

My ground rules for dressing like a fashionable lady scientist:
  • Your clothes should be comfortable, look good, and help you feel confident. That is the most important.
  • When in doubt, err on the side of caution and go the more conservative and dressed up route. This is true in life in general, ha.
  • No exposed cleavage.  Seriously.  Not even a little.  Button an extra button of your top and if you have big boobs larger breasts, invest in some heavy-duty bras and tops that fit.  
    • [ Note: I hate to sound like I'm slut-shaming here, which is probably why this has been the most controversial advice from comments over the years. My reason for this rule is this: any time I've worn anything remotely low-cut or show any amount of skin, I notice a few men will stare at my body. It makes me VERY uncomfortable and I really hate it. So I follow this rule in any professional setting. That said, this is all about your personal comfort level. If you feel confident, obviously, go for it.] 
  • Quality over quantity.  Spend more money on high-quality clothes that you can wear over and over.  In many cases you definitely get what you pay for.  
  • Know what fits you! It's so important! Your size can change! I feel like my life changed when I went a size larger than I always wore, even though my weight was the same. 
  • Jewelry and accessories can go a long way. That said, sometimes you end up wearing a lanyard badge around your neck the whole time anyway so extra necklace seems redundant. 
  • Sales clerks are really good at helping with sizing and putting outfits together. If you have no idea what you're doing, go to a nice department store and ask for help with the dressing room attendant.  Some stores (i.e. Nordstrom) even offer free fashion consulting.
  • Solid, neutral colors will always be in style.  These include: black, gray, brown, tan, beige, white, off-white, navy blue, light blue, dark green, dark red. 
  • If you're not sure what colors look good on you, check out this handy guide from Gala Darling.
Chunky sweater and skirt from J. Crew
  • A good length for skirts and dresses are just above the knee or just below.
  • "Trendy" and "stylish" are different things. Shoot for stylish, which to me means more classic, things that won't go out of style in a few years.
  • "Dressy" and "sexy" are two different things. I'm thinking about when I was an undergrad and the only non-jeans I had were the my fitted "going out" pants that were not necessarily appropriate for a work event.   
  • A few tricks to tone down a questionably too-sexy outfit: 
    • Opaque (dark) tights instead of bare legs.
    • Flats or oxfords instead of heels.
    • Cardigan or blazer over a fitted top or exposed shoulders. 
    • Camisole to wear under transparent shirts or to cover potential cleavage. 
    • Long shirts/sweaters to layer over jeggings/fitted slacks
This belted sheath dress from Nordstrom looks classy as fuck, but you could tone it down with cardigan and flats.
  • Dress appropriately for your age and level of experience.  A more experienced assistant professor who's chairing a session may get away with a sleeveless sheath dress, bare legs and heels (as shown above), but for a younger grad student presenting a poster this look might make her appear overdressed.

Basic pieces for fashionable lady scientists:
  • Pencil skirt or A-line skirt in black, or another neutral color, just above or just below the knee. (shown here from Nordstrom)
  • A great fitting pair of dress slacks. (shown here from Banana Republic) Pant style trends change a lot. These can also be tough to find off-the-rack. Some stores offer tailoring services, ask the salesclerk about getting them professionally hemmed. 

  • Stretch cotton button-up dress shirt in white, or another neutral color. (shown here from Nordstrom)
  • Pretty, feminine blouses: long sleeve, short sleeve, or sleeveless. No need to shy from prints and bright colors. (shown here from Loft)

  • Solid-colored, scoop-neck or draped-neck t-shirts for wearing alone or layering, also called "shells" - these can be casual or dressy.  (This Halogen top from Nordstrom, below, is the shit. I have it in three colors!)
  • Sheath dress - for a sophisticated nighttime banquet look.  (shown here from Nordstrom)
  • Fitted, dark denim jeans - can be business casual or casual depending on the rest of your outfit. (shown here from Banana Republic)
  • Cardigans. Lots of cardigans. Cardigans in all shapes and colors. Great for layering and cold conference rooms. (shown here from Banana Republic)

  • Blazer. A good cropped blazer will immediately upgrade any outfit, including jeans and a t-shirt, or can be worn with dress slacks for a more formal look.  (shown here from Macy's)
  • Scarf. Keeps you warm on planes AND dresses up an otherwise boring casual outfit AND looks classy as fuck.  If you don't know how to tie a scarf, check out this video.  (shown here from Nordstrom)

  • A full-coverage bra that FITS, preferably one that matches your skin tone.  I'm talking a heavy duty, fully-lined kind that your partner thinks is really ugly but looks good under any outfit. Also keep in mind your bra size changes as you age, so it's a good idea to get refitted if yours are not totally comfortable. (shown here from Macy's)
  • Camisoles a.k.a. camis in neutral tones to wear under semi-transparent or low-cut shirts. (shown here from Macy's). I wear these things all the time! I have them in white, black and nude. Sometimes a silky undershirt like this helps even a simple a t-shirt lay better.  

  • Opaque tights, in black or another neutral color, to wear under skirts or dresses. Are especially helpful for making short skirt seem more conservative. (shown here from Macy's)
  • Faux-leather tote-bag.  I bought a Nine West tote bag for a conference and I loved it so much that it became my default purse and carry-on.  It has pockets for my phone and wallet, fits my laptop, and the best part is I got it at Ross. (shown here from Macy's)

  • A good belt or two or four.  Waist-level to wear over shirts/dresses or to wear with slacks.  Here are some great tips for accessorizing with belts from The New Professional.
  • Jewelry.  A tasteful long necklace, bracelet, or pair of droop earrings can help pull a look together. I've heard some people say "no hoop earrings," as a rule, but I've worn them before at a conferences.
  • Comfortable flats. I love ballet flats. They are so versatile. Get them in a few colors. (shown here from Nordstrom)
  • Comfortable pumps.  Yes, they exist, but you'll need to pay more for ones that are comfortable.  Try to stick to less than 3", avoid stilettos and platforms. (shown here from Aldo Shoes)
  • Oxfords.  My favorite kind of shoe! I like to wear little invisible booty socks underneath and pair them with a cropped dress pants, it's so cute. (shown here from Aldo Shoes)
  • Boots? Stick to calf-length or lower and wear them with longer skirts and/or opaque tights. Boots are hard to pack but so necessary if it's cold and wet outside. If they're impossible to pack, wear them on the plane. If the weather is disgusting at the conference location, you could even wear boots TO the conference and change into flats when you get there. (shown here from Frye on Zappos)

Balancing a look:
Here are some examples of well-balanced outfits (more on Pinterest).

Balance a colorful, feminine blouse with conservative flat-front slacks and thin belt.
from Banana Republic
Dress-up a pair of jeans with a blouse, jewelry and cardigan or blazer.
from Loft
Dark tights and a cardigan will tone-down the sexy-secretary level of a fitted skirt, heels and blouse.
from Nordstrom
Cropped slacks and a tweed blazer with a knit tank underneath.  It's not a pantsuit because they don't match, OK?  This look is so versatile.  She could wear jeans instead for more casual look, wear a button-up blouse instead for more conservative look, or remove the blazer and add jewelry for more sophisticated look.
from Nordstrom

Slim-down a pair of wide leg trousers with a tailored, fitted top and wide belt (at the waist)
Good rule of thumb: baggy on bottom, fitted on top, but not both.
from Donna Karan via Net-a-porter

Wear a loose-fitting blouse and cardigan over trendy skinny-fit slacks (covers the butt).
Good rule of thumb: fitted on bottom, baggy on top, but not both.
The heels the model is wearing look a bit too trendy and impractical for a conference, but a pair of oxfords would be a great alternative.
from Nordstrom

Add some personality to a fitted pencil-skirt and blouse with a hot pink sweater.  I love this look. Doesn't she look so excited to tell you about her poster on organic chemistry research?  Sidenote: the socks + heels thing is trendy right now and I don't really get it haha
from Nordstrom

Pair baggy, masculine trousers with a skinny belt and a pretty, feminine secretary blouse.
This look from The Classy Cubicle.

Dark colors always look very fashionable. I love to experiment with layering.
Also, I'm kind of obsessed with every outfit this girl puts together.
from HipsterHijabis

Other tips for conference travel (what I do):
  • Before you travel, try on every outfit combination at home before you decide what to pack. Try your tops on with the bra you're bringing. Preferably do this when you still have a few extra days to go shopping. You may discover those dress slacks you had in the back of your closet for three years no longer fit. 
  • Pack groups of clothes that are in a similar color family, so most pieces match and are interchangeable. For example, I pack clothes that are all black, gray and blue. This way it's easier to create outfits with different combinations.
  • Pack extra tops and underthings in case you need to change partway through the day, especially if it's warm or you plan to do sightseeing or socializing after the conference.  
  • Make sure you're able to stand and walk comfortably in your shoes.  
  • Bring comfortable shoes.
  • Pack band-aids in case your otherwise comfortable dress shoes rub the back of your heels raw.
  • When you get to the conference, unpack immediately and iron and hang your clothes.
  • Dress in layers.  Always have a cardigan on hand in case the venue's AC is rocking.
  • Umbrella..? Check the weather ahead of time.
  • Observe! Make notes! What are other women wearing? What looks do you like? Make a mental shopping list for next time. :) 
  • Seriously, bring comfortable shoes.

Good stores to shop in: In case you hate shopping like I do and need more inspiration. Check out the 'work clothing' or 'career wear' or 'business wear' sections.

Check out my Pinterest board for all these looks and more.


  1. Great advice. I'd add one more point for those in the advanced course. Use the range of women's clothing, and the fact that your clothes will be noticed to your advantage if you can. Develop your own personal style.

    I was just had the following conversation:
    "This paper you printed, isn't he a student of what's her name?"
    "Um, I don't know her name, but she has dark curly hair?"

    An accurate description, but not very precise.

    There's a woman who attends many of the same small conferences I do who wears a lot of rings, another who has a distinct set of 3/4 pant suits. If you network wearing a particular unique style of outfit, and show up to talk to the same bigwigs a year later wearing similar distinct outfits, they are more likely to remember you, even if not your name.

    The key is, however, that you MUST be comfortable in your adopted style.

    1. I totally agree. And I think that in order to be comfortable with your style is to wear it more often. So wear your style to the lab on days that you don't have to do anything bloody, muddy or otherwise gross!

  2. Fabulous post !! Was a fantastic read....

  3. I was slightly taken aback by your comment that women shouldn't show cleavage. I mean, I don't know that I would myself, but if other women want to, all power to them. Academics are not the Taliban.
    Also, I'd recommend finding a bit of personality. If everyone shops at the big-name brands you recommend, every conference will contain carbon-copy women wearing variations on a dull theme. Bland, boring, forgettable.

    1. Scientific/engineering conferences I've been to are generally more conservative. In such a male-dominated field, I personally feel more comfortable dressing on the more conservative "bland" side than a more feminine and revealing side. This is obviously my opinion, and obviously there's room for personal fashion statements such as bright colors and accessories.

      I believe dressing well and dressing sexy are too very different things. I feel like cleavage is generally crossing a line into the 'too sexy' side of things. This is just me, perhaps showing a little skin can still be tasteful, but in a conservative professional scientific conference I feel this might draw too much unwanted attention.

      Yet I wonder what is so wrong "carbon-copy women wearing variations on a dull theme," and how is this any different than how men dress? Are women scientists beholden to rules of looking interesting and feminine because they are simply female, although we are in fact working alongside men as equals?

  4. I totally agree, it's generally safer to be conservative than not. I'm luck in that my engineering environment has more women than other engineering firms, so we have more examples of what is and is not acceptable to wear. Plus, as the group changes over time, we get to influence the acceptable uniform in an unspoken, slow evolution in the collective attire.

    In general, for work clothes, I shop at a lot of the stores you've listed. My favorites, though, are Ann Taylor, White House Black Market, and New York and Company. I have, however, developed a new rule for myself regarding work attire as an engineer and that is: never wear a skirt or dress to work. As much as I love to wear skirts and dresses, it just isn't practical with the work I do. With the exception of fancy work events and my personal attire on the weekends, dresses are now excluded from my wardrobe.

  5. Awesome post. I always struggle with what to pack when headed to a conference. Thank you for this!

  6. All the clothing you have recommended are lovely but a bit young for me, still I can admire the young uns wearing them! Thanks.

    Women's Designer Fashion and Clothing

  7. Just want to say thank you - 30 year old PhD navigating the tricky world of Conference Wear for the first time, and this is exactly the sort of advice I need.

  8. 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!

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. this is a pretty helpful post. Now i have an idea about what I should pack, since I'm taking only a carry-on for a 3-4 day marketing conference...yikes!

  11. Great post! I am in high school and I'm attending the congress for future physicians. I have limited time to pack. A concise guide like this is very helpful! Thank you

  12. thank you thank you thank you! i'm 23 and about to attend my first scientific conference as a grad student. This was so incredibly helpful (especially since my advisor is a guy and can't exactly help me with this)

  13. Great post! I always worry about what to wear for conferences, and I think I never get it completely right (my suit's slightly frumpy and mothballsy while at the other end of the spectrum my skirts are too...1950s girly girly)...I'm going to be referring back to this.

    I just wanted to ask, what do you think about lace? I have a black lace top that I *do* wear to work with no problems, it has a black camisole that covers the great majority of skin (NO cleavage, very little back visible) ... paired with white trousers and sometimes a white jacket, it just looks stylish to me, sexiness fairly toned down. I'm in the humanities, and women wear everything from floral sleeveless dresses to suits to white-blouse-pencil-skirt combos to T-shirts to the conferences I go to... but I don't want to rock the boat. At the same time, I feel so confident in this outfit, and at international events, confidence is really key.

  14. Thank you so much for this article! You gave some very cool fashion advices! I am going on a conference next week and I needed to read something like this! Thanks again!

  15. Great post! I am in high school and I'm attending the congress for future physicians. I have limited time to pack. A concise guide like this is very helpful! Thank you..........

    Brand Consultant Agency | Brand Marketing Consultant

  16. I totally agree. And I think that in order to be comfortable with your style is to wear it more often. So wear your style to the lab on days that you don't have to do anything bloody, muddy or otherwise gross.........

    Brand Consultant Singapore | Singapore Brand Consultant


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