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What to Wear to an Academic Conference

What to Wear to an Academic Conference

March 22, 2018 0 Comments

What to Wear to an Academic Conference (Women)

From determining the dress code to packing your bags, we’ve got you covered so you can rock your next conference in style!  

thesis defense outfit physicist

Physicist Miranda loves her Gravitational Waves Dress - makes for the perfect social icebreaker while networking! 

Are you secretly afraid that you’re going to show up at your next academic conference and find yourself entirely over, or under, dressed? Are you acutely aware that your clothes will be judged by others as a statement of your competence?


You’re not alone.

“How should women dress for an academic conference” is a question we’re often asked. Starting today we’re going to answer it with this, the first in a series of posts to address your concerns from every angle.

No matter your style, being conscious of how you dress reaches beyond a desire to be fashion forward or on trend. Your clothing is a tool just like anything else, and thoughtful planning will help you feel confident in how you look so you can focus on what really matters to you.

Image Credit: Martech Conference 2016

Image Credit: Martech Conference


Help is on the way

The challenges that women face in STEM fields are not a secret, and committed organizations are doing inspiring work to combat these issues. If we can study it, we can change it, and that puts us squarely in a position of progress.

If your style falls into the sphere of feminine and you’ve struggled with deciding whether to play down who you are to appease others, we’re with you, and you’re part of the inspiration for what we do:


From our Mission Statement:

Fashion is no minor matter––it helps define us, reflects what we value, and displays how we wish to appear. Fashion statements send influential messages and Shenova wishes to send a strong one; a message of empowerment.

Our purpose is to enable women to dress in a way that promotes their achievements, while also allowing them to present themselves in a dignified way.


Whether it’s an academic conference, industry conference, professional conference, or corporate event, we’re here to help you take the guesswork out of academic dress codes for women.


Navigating female academic dress codes without an FAQ

If you’re headed to a conference you’ve never attended before, you’ve probably already read the event’s FAQ section more than once. Once you find guidance on the dress code, a reasonable next step would be to seek out a consistent definition of that dress code online. If that search led you here, welcome! Please join us.

If you didn’t find dress code guidelines in the FAQ, don’t panic. We’ve done some digging for you and put together a plan to help take the stress out of this whole affair. Whether you’re an attendee or a presenter, dining at an awards ceremony or dishing at an after-party, we’ve got you covered:

  • The internet is your friend. A quick Instagram or Google image search for photos hashtagged with the name or initialism of the conference you’re attending will typically yield images from past years. Scrolling through should give you an idea of how others have dressed when attending or presenting in the past.
  • Reach out to your network. If Instagram lets you down, reach out to your network. Ask peers and professors who may have attended for insight into how they dressed and how others were dressed. If nobody in your circles has attended, there is a subreddit for everything. Enjoy the comforts of anonymity while asking relative strangers to help you prepare. 
  • Play it safe. If you have no interest in doing research, there’s no shame in playing it safe with a classic business/business casual wardrobe. Cliche but true: better to be overdressed than underdressed. If you pair being overdressed with confidence, the worst thing that can happen is you are mistaken for someone of prominence. There is no tragedy here.

Society for Neuroscience Conference Attendees

Image Credit: Society for Neuroscience 


Universal rules

There are some tried and true rules you can faithfully abide to help you navigate unfamiliar waters and any gray areas.

  • Mind your neckline and your hemline. If you have to ask if it’s too low or too short, it probably is. For a conclusive decision on any garment, ask yourself what your Great Aunt Helen would say.
  • Err on the side of caution and pack stockings. I AM AWARE that nude pantyhose are the great debate of our time. Even actual princesses cannot escape criticism. It has been my experience that pantyhose are the norm in 50% of professional spaces. What will it take for this to be a personal choice rather than a statement about ones progressiveness (or lack thereof)? Until we answer that question, a safe approach is to find an affordable brand with a barely-there finish and enjoy the camaraderie that only a restroom full of women hiking up their hosiery can foster.
  • Consider each layer. When layering, look at your outfit at each stage and ask if it is still appropriate with one or more layers removed. If misplacing your cardigan takes your look from stylish female college professor and transforms it into Entourage party scene extra, reconsider your choices.
  • Dress like yourself, or your favorite version of yourself. Whatever first impression you make is the impression you’ll have to maintain. This goes beyond your manner of dress, too. Your first impression is the impression you’ll be tasked with upholding in all future interactions with the contacts you make. If it isn’t rooted in truth, you’re assigning yourself additional emotional labor for years to come.
  • Acknowledge that most of the rules that exist for women’s professional dress for a conference are steeped in misogyny and outmoded standards of female purity. It is 2018, and women still have to navigate additional social barriers and expectations just to get into the room. We all know this is absurd, and that we’re only following the rules until we can change them. A fun way to feel better about all of this while you grin and bear it is to find a man who looks overconfident and then explain his own research to him.


Image Credit; MIT NewsImage Credit: MIT News 

Okay, we’ve figured out the dress code and developed strong opinions about pantyhose. Now what?

Now it’s time to develop strong opinions about capsule wardrobes!

Strong opinions not really required. There are enough of them on this topic already. Gauntlets have been thrown and answered. This is, to put it mildly, not something I want to put a lot of energy into arguing.

A capsule wardrobe, trimmed down to its purpose, is a wardrobe curated to reflect your personal style, composed of a set number of high quality coordinating staples and statement pieces. Those who have curated their own capsule wardrobe cite motivations related to minimalism, reducing the environmental impact of disposable fashion, saving time, saving money, reducing stress, establishing a personal style, and plenty of other worthy purposes that seem to be at odds with arguing about who is doing it right. We’re going to refrain from throwing ourselves on that particular sword and focus on purpose over process.


Should you choose to explore capsule wardrobes further and create one for yourself, I would suggest that you:

  • Identify what is important to you and identify criteria and questions based on those values to guide you, and
  • Check back in for our upcoming post that will contain a deep dive into the subject. We’ll update this post with the link once it’s up.


If you have no interest in ever having a capsule wardrobe, or if it doesn’t suit your lifestyle, not to worry. We’re just using some of the guiding principles to inform our outfit choices in this post.  


Here are the questions that guided me when creating my own capsule wardrobe.

  • Do I feel confident in this? When I first started curating my wardrobe, my confidence was permeable, and I wanted my clothes always to reflect confidence even if I was struggling to feel it at a given moment.
  • Is this in line with my personal brand? I didn’t readily adopt the phrase personal brand, but when a mentor shared that she used her wardrobe to curate a look that was consistent and memorable, I was intrigued. This is my favorite part of having a signature style -- consistency makes you memorable, which is an invaluable asset in networking.
  • Will this coordinate with more than half of my wardrobe? Saving time deciding what to wear each morning was another big perk for me, so I wanted each item to work seamlessly with the rest of my closet so I wouldn’t have to spend any more mornings in front of a mirror asking my partner “does this black match this other black?"
  • Is this interesting to me? By eliminating constant shopping to stay current on trends, I was able to focus on the quality and interest of each piece. Rather than having a closet full of dresses that I’ve worn exactly once, I have a few statement pieces that I love and which have proven to be reliable conversation starters.

Pick a dress you're confident in

Katie Linendoll hosting the Teradata Tech Conference in Circuitry Dress


One suitcase, infinite (almost) possibilities

Now that we’ve nailed down the concept let’s create a one-suitcase capsule to pack for a conference. In order to get everything in a single carry-on suitcase (stay tuned for more on this in a future post), everything you pack will need to be appropriate for the weather and the dress code in addition to meeting the criteria in the questions above.

You’ll also want to be mindful that, while you may be arriving before the conference begins, other presenters and attendees will likely be descending upon the airport and hotel at the same time. It’s best to assume that your first impression is made as soon as you arrive at your departing airport, and suppress the urge to fly in your sweatpants and Frankie Says Relax tee-shirt.

For our purposes, we’re going to look at how we can leverage a few core pieces to meet the needs of dress codes from casual to cocktail.


In Your Suitcase:

While you’ll find links below to the exact items pictured, this capsule is only an example of what is possible with a few thoughtfully combined pieces. When you assess your closet or shop locally for new items, keep in mind the function each item serves and the versatility it provides.

These are not affiliate links, nor has this post been sponsored by any of the mentioned brands.


The Statement Piece

A statement piece serves as a conversation starter, and choosing the right one will net you not only a host of compliments but new professional contacts, too. We’re choosing the Double Helix DNA Dress for this capsule, but you can find a design from your field of study in Shenova’s Women in STEM Collection.


Coordinating Basics

Since we’re packing for both fashion and function, you’ll also want to consider how to transition your outfits from day to night and to style them for multiple wears (and temperatures -- conference centers are reliably frigid until you show up packed only for freezing temperatures.)

Another key but easy-to-forget need is a place to attach your name tag each day. You want everyone you meet to be able to quickly identify you, so a black blazer similar to this one will do double duty by keeping you warm and giving you a lapel to which your nametag can be clipped.

What to wear to an academic conference

We’re also going to add two additional tops and bottoms to our suitcase. Even if your conference lasts only 2-3 days, you’ll want to prepare for anything and have a backup on hand, so you’re not stuck without options if you spill red wine on your day three shirt while enjoying your night one dinner. Here’s what we put together:

Pants and Skirt

  • LE3NO is a California-based brand with reliably affordable basics. I can’t be entirely trusted not to stain white clothing, so I skip buy-it-for-life shopping when it comes to white clothes and seek out buy-it-for-fashion options, instead. This relaxed fit button down checks all my boxes. (3) 
  • This button down shirt from Hotouch comes in many different variations and colors, and it's in cotton so it breathes. (4) 




Socks, undergarments, and sleepwear aren’t counted in the number of garments that make up your capsule, but naturally, they are items you’ll need to pack, along with any necessary hosiery. For our purposes, we need black opaque tights (5) and nude pantyhose. (6)

Professional Tights


Feel free to make your own decisions about shapewear. As someone who has, at separate times, been stuck in shapewear in a fitting room and required help from the flustered attendant, and who has also cut herself out of a pair of Spanx in the middle of a workday, I have some feelings about them. But these Luxe Leg Blackout tights from Spanx DO deliver a perfect opaque effect.

On Your Body

The outfit you wear on the plane is also going to be in rotation with the items you pack in your suitcase, so while you’ll dress in more casual attire while traveling, you’ll want to coordinate with your packed items.


  • ASOS consistently balances quality, style, and affordability, so this Cobalt Blue Wool Blend Cardigan rounds out the look. (9) Casual enough to be paired with jeans, cozy enough to stay comfortable in air-conditioned conference spaces, this has the kind of wear-anywhere versatility that grabs my interest and holds it. j.crew also offers up some great alternatives. 

Professional Capsule


Our favorite STEM Inspired Jewelry Makers


 Science Themed Necklaces


  • You can choose to wear your jewelry while you travel or stow it securely in your handbag. Ditto for your scarf, though, you’ll never have to ask me twice to add a scarf to any outfit. If you need a little more convincing, consider this: a good sized scarf can keep you warm, transform your outfit, cover a stain, and offer a place to clip your name tag in a pinch. Etsy is my favorite destination for unique handmade accessories. For academia and STEM inspired scarves, check out Aslidesign(10)

Academic Scarves 

On your feet

Consider your comfort. Even the most comfortable pair of shoes can cause pain after daily wear. To avoid constant pressure in the same place, pack two pairs of shoes and rotate them.

When packing, the most compact pair of shoes you bring should go in your suitcase, while the pair that takes up more space should be worn while you travel. This is a good test for how comfortable your shoes will be while you’re at the conference, as well. If you don’t want to wear them in the airport or on the plane, you probably won’t be comfortable in them throughout the conference.  Some suggestions:


  • Yes, these are business casual Crocs. This is the most divisive thing I will ever say, but I’m saying it: Go buy those Crocs. They’ve come a long way from garden clogs, and they are second to none in terms of comfort. These Cole Haan Wedges are a slightly more expensive option if you’re not ready for dishwasher-safe footwear.  
  • Tieks’ reputation for comfort is not undeserved, and there’s a reason you see those teal soles all over airports. No matter the quality, not everyone finds ballet flats comfortable or enjoys this particular style. If you’re among them, these wool loungers from Allbirds are a great alternative, and they’re a worthy competitor for all other brands competing for the title of world’s most comfortable shoes.

Footwear for Academic Comfort

Putting it all together

This is easily the most fun part of the whole process. Now we get to start coordinating the different outfits that are possible with the handful of items we’ve packed.

When doing this for yourself, you’ll integrate this part into your decision making to ensure that you’re bringing the most versatile pieces. It’s also helpful to take pictures of each pairing so you can easily recreate them again.


Academic Wear






The possibilities aren’t necessarily endless, but they are vast. And for extra fun (and planning) check out the Stylebook app for your phone. While it’s not QUITE as cool as Cher’s closet in Clueless, it’s close enough and includes lots of fun little features.


Conference Survival Kit

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or so they say. We’ll cover this topic more in depth in our upcoming post on surviving your first (or tenth) conference. For now, here are some quick tips that will help you handle anything that comes your way:


  • Choose a handbag that fits your laptop, makeup bag, and any toiletries. Like everything else you’re bringing, this will do double duty. Your pass through airport security will be faster since you won’t have to unpack your luggage to remove these items. And, when you get to the conference, you’ll have a bag large enough to carry your conference materials, so you don’t have to lug around the conference bag.
  • Keep a small umbrella in your bag. These adorable little travel umbrellas from The Container Store are so small you can toss one into your purse and forget it’s there until you need it.
  • Plan for blisters. Consider these two products investments in your well-being.
  • Keep an emergency bag with you. While you may have additional items to include based on your needs, the basics are:
    • A sewing kit (or iron-on hem tape, which I’ll just admit right now is how I roll.)
    • A Tide pen for any small stains
    • Clear nail polish for runs in your stockings. It’s also great in a pinch if you’re a cuticle biter who would like to refrain from cuticle biting throughout the conference.
    • A spray bottle full of vodka.

    • (Updated March 5, 2020) LOTS of Hand Sanitizer to combat the Coronavirus
  • Vodka? You heard me. Keep a small, airplane friendly spray bottle with a secure cap with you when you travel to freshen up your clothes between wears. At the end of the day, put each item on its own hanger and spray it generously with vodka and then allow it to dry. The vodka smell will be gone when you wake up the following morning, and so will any lingering odors from last night’s dinner.


Academic Conference Survival Kit


Well-dressed, well-prepared, and ready to rock your next conference in style!

And there you have it. A versatile wardrobe and contingency plan all in one suitcase, with enough options to transition from day to night and remain fashionable and comfortable every step of the way. What do you wish you had known when you attended your first academic conference? Let us know in the comments so we can share it with the rest of our readers in an upcoming post.

Do you have a conference coming up and need some help? What else do you want to know to make your first or next conference more comfortable and stress-free?

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