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Lessons I Wish I Knew: How to Dress for a Conference


Lessons i wish conference

I recently attended a national conference in Washington D.C. with several friends. While my guy friends had it easy – they just brought a suit – the girls struggled more with what to pack.

While a lot can be considered professional attire, it was a tough job to create outfits that were not only appropriate for the weather, but could also be mixed and matched. Did I mention that all of this had to fit in a carry-on? The tips I wrote for spring break packing are extremely helpful for this situation, and I still continue to use those for any trip I take, whether it’s for business or fun.

However, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, and are stumped about what kind of clothes and accessories to bring with you, I’m here to help. Below, I created outfits based on what I wore to the conference. Three of the looks incorporate a must-have piece of professional wear, while the fourth is a travel outfit that’s ideal for flights or long car rides.

1. Traveling Outfit

Professional travel attire
Product Information: Leggings — Madewell, Bag — Longchamp, Flats — Zara, and Blouse — UNIQLO

As I was deciding what outfit to wear to the airport, I realized that I should wear something comfortable yet professional, in case I would have to wear it to the conference. With this in mind, I actually wore J.Crew’s Pixie Pants, a pair of pants that are super comfortable but have the ability to be dressed up or down.

Over the pants, I wore a looser, wrinkle-free button-up that could replace one of my shirts if I had happened to spill food or makeup on it during the conference. I grabbed a neutral pair of flats to wear on the flight (they were super easy to slip on and off for the TSA check) and tossed my wrinkle-prone blazer over my arm in case the flight was cold.

For my carry-on bag, I brought my Longchamp. It was the perfect bag because it’s waterproof, easy to fold up, and it blended in with the rest of the bags others had at the conference (I actually would recommend bringing a portfolio to keep up with papers rather than a bag).

2. The Flirty Skirt

What to wear to a conference
Product Information: Heels — GUESS, Shirt — UNIQLO, Skirt — J.Crew, and Blazer — Topshop

This is what I wore on the first day, and I love the feel of this outfit for a first impression. I actually adore the skirt above; it’s the J.Crew Fluted Skirt and has been amazing for many different occasions. In this outfit, I paired it with a structured and versatile blazer, neutral heels, and a blouse. It’s very girly but still professional.

The skirt comes in a variety of versatile colors, such as white, black, and navy, but I picked this shade of green for its subtle addition of color; I’d rather not join the sea of black and white unless it’s necessary. With this pop of color, I opted to use neutral shades for the rest of the outfit: I wanted to stand out but not stand out.

3. The Classic Black Dress

Professional outfit black dress
Product Information: Dress — Dorothy Perkins, Flats — Zara, Pearls — Banana Republic, and Blazer — Topshop

Every girl should have a classic black dress, and I’m so excited about them that I own several. Dresses are probably my favorite clothing piece; why wear pants if you don’t have to?

With this classic LBD, I channeled a bit of Audrey Hepburn with pearls, added a neutral blazer (if you’re daring, pick a nice seasonal color), and threw on the same flats from the travel outfit. Neutral shoes are super versatile for trips when you only bring a carry-on.

This look can easily be dressed up with a neutral pair of heels rather than flats. Don’t forget to pack a few pairs of pantyhose, too; I have a personal preference for opaque nude thigh-highs for comfort (they also seem less prone to rips).

4. A Strong Pant

Lessons i wish conference pants
Product Information: Button up — J.Crew, Pants — H&M, Blazer — H&M, and Flats — Tory Burch

I wore this exact outfit to the conference: a white button-up, black trousers, and a brown blazer. I matched my blazer’s buttons to the gold logo on my flats. I thought it was a change-up from the typical uniform, and I love mixing black with brown accessories.

I brought this outfit for the day that I knew I wouldn’t want to worry about accidentally flashing those at the table with me – that is the last thing I want to think about on some days. And if anything were to happen (let’s say an unfortunate rip or tear), the black pants you wore on the flight over would be a perfect replacement for these pants without anyone noticing.

Surprisingly, even with all my outfits that could be mixed and matched (who really knows if you wear the same pair of pants twice?), I still managed to have a completely full suitcase. However, I felt confident in my clothes at the conference, and it definitely showed in my work ethic and appearance.


What did you think about these four outfits for conferences? What are some tips you use when you wear professional attire? Let us know what you think down below in a comment!

Posted on on March 27, 2014 / Filed Under: Fashion Tips / Tags: , , , , , , ,

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13 Responses to “Lessons I Wish I Knew: How to Dress for a Conference”

  1. 1
    March 27th, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    These are good picks. However I’d advise against wearing leggings as pants even when traveling. If you want to wear leggings, I’d advocate for a bottom-covering tunic.

  2. 2
    March 27th, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Great post!! Love the outfits you put together and definitely seem appropriate for a conference and other similar functions.

  3. 3
    March 27th, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    These are great! I’ve got an internship coming up this summer and this has definitely given me some inspiration. What do you wear on a day-to-day basis? I’ll be working as a software intern so I need casual stuff too.

  4. 4
    March 27th, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    I packed exactly like this for the last national conference I went to! Upon arriving, I discovered that science people prefer jeans no matter what the setting… better to overdress I guess.

  5. 5
    March 27th, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    This is a great post, but I think it is important to keep in mind the conference you are going to. A simple Google Image search of the conference name should give an indication of the level of “dressiness” required. As a geoscientist, our conferences are a lot more casual, with men typically wearing khakis or jeans and some looking like they just got back from climbing a mountain, so any of these outfits would be considered too dressy! As RL mentioned, the sciences tend to go a little more casual, so keep that in mind!

  6. 6
    March 27th, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    I second HD! Definitely do some research & know your field.

    I would also recommend comfortable shoes not matter what kind of conference you’re going to. I found myself walking around & standing most of the days. A roomy bag that sits comfortably is also good, since there’s often a lot of free swag given out, or at least the ones I’ve been to.

  7. 7
    March 27th, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    I highly discourage the heels. Even in the most professional of settings what matters more is what you have to say and how you say it than what you look like. U walking around with painful feet constantly adjusting yourself will impress no one. Find comfortable shoes. Make yourself look presentable by being clean. I would highly recommend that you all look at (Society of Women Engineers). If there is one national conference that is style & business, it’s that one. However, the smart ones aren’t killing their feet or chances at an internship.

  8. 8
    March 28th, 2014 at 12:04 am

    Oh my gosh, I love the second outfit!!!!! I agree with others that you should probably skip heels for a conference unless you’re the type to wear them all the time, but it would look just as cute with flats. Plus I’d probably go for a slightly more neutral skirt with the flirty blouse, since I think my field is conservative, but again, that can be done!!!!!

    Also, the timing of this post is perfect for me!!!!!!!! I don’t have any conferences coming up, but this summer I’ll be flying to a two month research experience, so I’ll definitely need to pack a few semi-professional mix and match outfits just in case. Thanks!!!!!!

  9. 9
    March 28th, 2014 at 7:44 am

    I love this article! I wish there were more plus sized friendly brands featured, though! Maybe another time? It’s so hard to find professional, but not matronly clothes for us larger girls!

  10. 10
    March 28th, 2014 at 10:08 am

    While I agree that flats are probably better for most women, some people are comfortable in heels. I think the best advice to anyone going to a conference is to dress comfortably. I don’t mean in sweats and a hoodie, but in clothing that you feel comfortable and confident in. If that’s heels, wear heels.

  11. 11
    March 28th, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    I recommend a pair of semi-tailored, wide leg linen trousers. You get the smart trouser look that fits in well if you are at a more casually-dressed science conference but still looks smart of the conference turns out to be more professional than you expected. Great for summer, as they keep your warmer than a skirt if the weather isn’t great but still cool if its hot. Pair with a white casual cotton blouse and maybe add some colour with a lightweight scarf and simple flats. Comfy and professional but not too dressy.

  12. 12
    March 30th, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    I can’t believe it – you totally responded to my suggestion and ORCKED IT@ What an awesome article, such adorable outfits, and YOU HILARIOUS PICKED UP ON THE MOST ESSENTIAL ADVICE FOR CONFERENCE GO-ERS – bring versatile clothes! Between the travel, shuttling from poster session to presentation to dinner to touristy-activities, something will happen – my go-to super professional, past-knee length pencil skirt RIPPED at the slit into a very, very mini skirt and I freaked out and had to borrow something quick from my professor! Fortunately she’s a great lady and we bonded over it with drinks that night. But seriously, this article makes me not only worship your fashion sense but want to be your best friend. Congratulations on the conference and I hope you had an amazing time – my conference was in DC last May and I biked around the last day and made several impromptu trips to the zoo, loving every second!

  13. 13
    August 27th, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    I typically pack like the guys. A few cute suits, a dress, a pair of jeans with two blouses/sweaters, 1 pair of flats and 1 pair of heels

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