Please help me put together outfits for an upcoming conference!
August 7, 2014 9:25 AM   Subscribe

Difficult level: Academia. Further complicating details inside the fold.

I (a woman hopefully nearing the end of the penultimate year of my PhD) will be speaking at an upcoming academic conference in my subject (humanities), and am currently trying to decide on a choice of dress. I have spoken at conferences previously, but generally in cold weather; this conference will likely be in temperate weather (probably around 60-70 degrees F), so I'm trying to go for something lighter and a bit more late-summery than my usual conference outfit of wool tweed, sweaters, and tall boots. To complicate things, at least in the sub-circles I have been in, there is a fairly particular aesthetic culture within my discipline that I think is probably best described as anti-corporate. Professors in my humanities area seem to me to define themselves in some measure against corporate culture, especially in acts of sartorial defiance. I have seen suits, for instance, remarked on as pretentious and soulless, like you're trying too hard (possibly in overcompensation for your work, which it seems to cast aspersions on - I have heard similar things about Silicon Valley culture as well). This obviously makes choice of clothing a bit of a minefield, especially for women, since our clothing choices are often read to be personally expressive in a way that men's aren't. A number of key (male) academics in my field will be there, and it is crucial that I make a good impression on them, as it is likely that one of them would be on any hiring committee if I look for a post-doc in the next few years. Help?!

From what I have seen, the (non-graduate-student) men tend to wear chinos and (possibly slightly rumpled) button-down Oxford shirts with the sleeves rolled, and no tie. I have even seen some very senior academics wear jeans at conferences or other formal events. The men who wear suits tend to be grad students, and I think this is looked down on by older academics, or at least thought of as servile. I have come across fewer non-graduate-student women at conferences, since my field is dominated by men at the higher echelons, but it seems to me that what generally works best for women is a polished artsy/bohemian style that channels a business-casual vibe - that kind of slightly cliched Zooey-Dechanel young-librarian-who-shops-at-Anthropologie feel. Nothing too formal or stuffy, and the outfit has to have a bookish slightly quirky but slightly classic flavor - polished, confident and masterful without being aggressive or masculine, sweetly ironic, a bit prim in a playful way, very feminine, and body-flattering but not overtly sexy. Color-wise I am hoping to avoid dark and harsh suit colors, as I personally look much better in soft saturated jewel-like colors (peach, emerald, turquoise, coral, golden yellow, apple green, plum, etc.). I have fair skin and reddish-auburn hair that is wavy and mid-back-length, and I think I come out as a "warm spring" on seasonal color-typing. Also, I have a medium-sized hourglassy shape (34C/36C bra size - 27" waist - 38.5" hips), so I am trying to find an outfit with a good amount of waist definition and a generally fitted shape (feminine without looking too sexed-up).

In light of the above, my questions are two-fold:

1. I'd love to hear suggestions about what types of clothing or outfits in general work best within these parameters - both the parameters set by the sartorial culture of my discipline, and also those of my body shape and coloring. The conference is several days, so I am looking to form a few outfits. General recommendations for what to wear would be great, or even links to specific pieces if you know of any! Bonus points if they are either high-quality/long-wearing for a reasonable price, or alternatively, cheap enough to be easily afforded by a grad student!

2. On the day that I give a paper, I am leaning towards this dress (of which I am soon to be the proud new owner). I like it because I think that the colors and shape will work with my body and coloring, and it seems to me to hit the right sort of vibe, especially with the tuxedo neckline playfully riffing off of men's business dress. (I have some more feminine sundresses, but they look to me less like conference wear and more like Saturday picnic in the park, so I thought this one might be better.) I was thinking that I would wear this dress with vintage brown leather woven heels and a fitted cropped deep-v-neck cardigan, buttoned only for a few buttons at the waist so that the dress's ruffle shows - maybe in a plum color. Does this sound okay? Suggestions on earrings? Would the dress be better paired with a cardigan in another color, or with something else? Suggestions on how to wear my hair? Would I be better off with a different dress/outfit entirely?
posted by ClaireBear to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
While they are no longer updating the site, Academic Chic has fantastic ideas for dressing as a woman in academia, and it's not too dated yet. Check out their Conference Wear tag in particular.

I've found that as long as you look clean and don't wear anything revealing or flashy that really anything is fine to wear at a conference. That dress looks great.

Congrats, and have fun presenting your work!
posted by sockermom at 9:35 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know that much about academia, but I have to say, with the aesthetic you describe, I would be all over ModCloth's work appropriate page.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:38 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Heh, you sound like me, down to the field, body shape, and hair color! That dress seems lovely, and perfect. But in any case, my conference wear is usually nicer jeans + nicer shoes + nice T-shirt/sweater/button down shirt on days when I'm not presenting. I highly recommend higher end consignment, if that's possible- most of my nice conference wear has been gotten via that method, and I've got some nice tops now from J Crew/The Limited/Anthropologie/etc. on the cheap that way.

Presentation days, I tend to go for a casual dress: my go-to dress is like this, but in a rusty color and longer (just below knee length) + simple jewelry + dark tights and boots. For hair, I would have it up and neat in some way. I'd also do very minimal make up.
posted by damayanti at 9:39 AM on August 7, 2014

Also, seconding jacquilynne's suggestion for ModCloth. I've seen many a presenter in the Coach Tour Dress. (Do be careful on the length of some of their stuff, though! Especially on curvy girls, stuff that looks OK on the model ends up being slightly on questionable side, in terms of work-appropriateness.)
posted by damayanti at 9:45 AM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do not judge what is appropriate by what some senior professors are wearing. They are not on the job market. A PhD student at a conference should dress as if for a job interview.

A better place to ask this question would be over at the Chronicle of Higher Education forums.
posted by LarryC at 9:49 AM on August 7, 2014 [11 favorites]

Another option: a flowy skirt in a color you like with a white, well-fitting princess-seamed blouse.
posted by metasarah at 9:52 AM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also like to avoid suits, and often wear a basic shirtdress to (non-academic) conferences. I have one like this (sadly, looks like it's not available in smaller sizes anymore, but it's really nice at defining the waist and looking simultaneously relaxed and professional enough).
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:54 AM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I always worry about this stuff too. The outfit I've admired the most at conferences (science, but sounds similar dress code-wise) is a dress that's something like this, but a bit more formal - can't find a great picture of what I mean. Non-flowy, suit-like material, usually solid grey, not showing a lot of skin, but more modern and casual looking than a suit or skirt+suit jacket. Often works well with a casual blazer or cardigan. It's more dressed up than the norm, so it looks professional, but isn't over the top like a suit might be.

One step less dressy from that would be a more flowy/casual dress, or a blouse and a skirt. I'm not sure I'd go all the way to a sundress, but it depends on what you're comfortable in and what your peers are wearing. People won't care unless you dress pretty far outside the norm, but I think a slightly more polished look than the norm can give a good impression when you're presenting.
posted by randomnity at 10:05 AM on August 7, 2014

My field is a little less formal-sounding than yours (physical anthropology), but conference wear runs the gamut from senior male professors in jeans and birkenstocks, to young female graduate students in stilettos and skirt suits. I always wear a pencil skirt, nice solid t-shirt, and cardigan or blazer, with interesting shoes along these lines. The skirt can be any color or fabric (I have some corduroy, some linen, some polyester-y in more or less formal colors and weights), the shirt can be dressier or not, and the cardigan or blazer vary seasonally and in formality.

Sheath dresses with a cardigan or blazer might also do the trick, but I haven't yet found one that I liked.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:13 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

My usual go-to for conferences in my (casual, male-dominated) field is a simple knee-length pencil skirt (NOT a mini), very low heels, flats, or kitten heels, and—to keep it from being too "businessey"—a button-down shirt from some fabric that doesn't need to be ironed, such as chambray, maybe with a pattern. I roll up the sleeves if it's warm and go without tights, or add a cardigan or a sweater (sleeves still rolled up) if it's cold (it doesn't sound like you'll need it, but you could always go with a summer-weight linen sweater). Examples: pencil skirt with a denim button-down, long pencil skirt with a sweater, sweater over a patterned shirt, belted, or even a bit more casual with a slouchy tee. You could also do the rolled-sleeve look with capri pants for a summer conference. I find that conference centers tend to be on the cold side, especially in the summer, so a light sweater isn't a bad idea.

To be honest, no one there will care what you wear, so the no. 1 priority is making sure you feel comfortable and confident.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:26 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm in a similar position, but a bit further along. I'm sorry to say it, but I would encourage you not to wear that dress to give your talk. The dress is lovely, and I'm sure you will look wonderful in it, but I think it is a bit too twee and girly for the occasion.

Please don't get me wrong: I don't think women in academia need to be wearing power suits, and I hate the fact the women need to think about these things at all. However, I suspect that particular dress will send a message that you may not wish to send, especially at your stage in your career. (And yes, I have heard people make comments about what younger women academics were wearing to interviews and other professional events; it is totally unfair, but please don't think that it doesn't happen.) Once you have a bit more power, your sartorial choices do expand.

If I were in your position, I would find a simple short sleeved shirt in a color I thought was flattering and pair it with a neutral, clean lined skirt or dark pants. I would probably bring a neutral cardigan in case I got cold. Then I would forget about what I was wearing and enjoy the conference.
posted by girl flaneur at 10:47 AM on August 7, 2014 [16 favorites]

I'm going to also vote against that dress, as cute as it is. You might try Boden, their website seems to be down at the moment so I can't find anything to link to, but they have a lot of cute prints in business casual styles. Might cover the professional and artistically inclined requirements. I think they are doing a little sale right now with free shipping & returns. Not as cheap as ModCloth, but not as expensive as say Anthro, but solid quality usually and could be considered an investment in your professional wardrobe.
posted by snowymorninblues at 11:24 AM on August 7, 2014

Roland Mouret for Banana Republic (#4, #5, #6, #7, #11)
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:32 AM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Boden. Their website's working fine for me.
posted by yarntheory at 11:36 AM on August 7, 2014

The dress is a bit too summer-cocktails rather than professional. Even with a cardigan. You might be able to rock it with the right accessories, but it's not the safe choice.

I'd suggest one of Boden's more professional dresses, or printed shirt with pants and a cardigan. JCrew has some options too.
posted by barnone at 11:52 AM on August 7, 2014

Pencil skirt or A-line skirt in a solid color, contrasting patterned top, with a cardigan in a complementary shade to tie it all together. That's not a suit, but not too casual; it's the sort of thing I wear to work most of the time. Nice flats or a low heel: metallics go with everything, I have found, and you'll be on your feet a lot, so don't go for anything higher than 2".
posted by suelac at 11:55 AM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Boden or a combo like suelac suggests is a much better choice than the cute dress you picked out. For a summer conference, maybe consider a linen or light colored blazer with rolled sleeves. A pretty lightweight scarf is a good way to get the bohemian vibe while also insulating you from frigid conference centers. Stacked bangles, rings and interesting necklaces can also bring the alterna-vibe while remaining professional.

Here's a good Pinterest board for the vibe I'm thinking.
posted by purple_bird at 2:01 PM on August 7, 2014

Chiming in a little bit to disagree with Larryc: a phd student on the job market should dress as if at an interview only if actually at an interview. Otherwise, should dress like a young faculty member. Suits at a conference where nobody wears suits screams Insecure Grad Student, and, as the always wise Karen Kelsky emphasizes, you don't want to come off that way.

Can't speak to specifics, I'm afraid. Dude.
posted by paultopia at 5:38 PM on August 7, 2014

I'm a woman in the humanities (jr faculty) and would side with LarryC. You won't go wrong erring on the more somber/formal side. I agree that the dress you linked, while lovely, would make you seem young and twee more than serious. You don't need a suit, but nice trousers and a lightweight blazer over a nice shirt will serve you well, or a more structured dress with a cardigan. I see a lot of female grad students/young faculty doing the funky footwear/trouser jeans/nice shirt/blazer combo to good effect, too, for that compromise between formal and bohemian.
posted by TwoStride at 6:25 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

One argument in favor of pants is that if you're using one of those clip-on mics with the bulky receiver boxes attached, pants give you somewhere to stuff the box versus having to hold it the whole time.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 7:27 PM on August 7, 2014

Graduating grad student in the sciences here. Without knowing exactly what the aesthetic culture is like in your field (though I think I have a good sense based on your detailed description), I have to agree with the posters who said that the dress you linked will probably give off too much of a young/cute/secretarial vibe, though perhaps one could find a structured blazer that would ground it a bit. Frankly, it's not consistent with "polished, confident and masterful".

Given the stakes, it's probably better to err on the side of simple/classic pieces and to express yourself through interesting accessories. (And to be honest, I think when folks try for the slightly rumpled boho academic look, it's easier for men than women to go further down the rumpled end of the rumpled-polished spectrum before crossing the line into too-casual..)

One good outfit is a silk button-down/collared long sleeved shirt in a good color for you (plum? something dark so less likely to be see-through), tucked into black pants with tapered ankles, and polished flats. Add quirkiness and irony and sartorial defiance with interesting accessories - earrings, long necklace, belt, watch, flats, scarf - that no businesswoman would dare wear. Done well, this outfit would fit all your requirements of "slightly quirky but slightly classic flavor - polished, confident and masterful without being aggressive or masculine, sweetly ironic, a bit prim in a playful way, very feminine, and body-flattering but not overtly sexy".

Another possibility is a sheath dress, paired with the perfect Anthropologie-esque blazer. This one's amazing: great cut, no cleavage, professional enough without being pinstripe-corporate, super comfortable, travels well.
posted by nemutdero at 8:24 PM on August 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think the dress you linked is cute, but would give off a costume-y vibe as your presentation attire. No one will really get the riff off men's shirts. It also will need to be ironed--at least if you want a polished, confident look. After time in your suitcase, that could take awhile. Save it for a more casual event or when rumpled is OK.

A simple jersey knit wrap dress would be a good choice--Boden, Land's End, Macy's, et. al. have them in various colors. The length is important--several of the things suggested here are way too short (mid-thigh! I don't think so), but too long looks frumpy, so you will want to try them on. A dress like that can be easily livened up with accessories, blazer, cardigan...Low-heeled shoes are a must at conferences. Find a good one and it can be your "conference presentation" dress with different accessories each time. Eliminate a lot of worry about what to wear.

And, not to be indelicate, but consider perspiration when you choose colors/styles. If you do perspire a lot when nervous, and who isn't nervous giving an important presentation, think about using dress shields with whatever you wear. I learned this the hard way. I have used these. They can eliminate embarrassment and help with that old saying "never let them see you sweat," which sounds important based on the description of your field and how important what you wear is.

Good luck with the presentation and enjoy the conference!
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 9:16 PM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I came in to say wrap dress, too. They travel well squashed into a suitcase, and I think it would be hard to feel under- or over-dressed in one, unless you were at a wedding (as the bride).
posted by superfish at 2:07 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

PS. I like your presentation dress. After your talk people may want to chat to you about it, and it's easier to find you at a big conference if you're wearing something a tiny bit different.
posted by superfish at 2:10 AM on August 8, 2014

Thanks all - this has been very insightful! I appreciate all of your thoughts, and you've given me a bunch of things to consider. Thank you!
posted by ClaireBear at 12:21 PM on August 8, 2014

A wrap dress, or shift dress, in an unforgettable colour. Knee length, not too fitted. I like dresses too because it eliminates the need to mix and match on the morning of something important. Nothing makes me feel more comfortable in front of an audience than a dress that is a little loose to allow movement, cut well so it's still flattering, has sleeves and is knee length to look appropriate, and in a vibrant colour so its memorable.
posted by shazzam! at 6:01 AM on August 9, 2014

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