As I started to travel to conferences, I often found myself faced with the "What should I wear?" dilemma. Being in my mid twenties, I didn't want to give off the impression of being the "lost student" out there without any authority on the topic, nor did I want to dress like someone in their forties - and certainly I didn't want to wrong type of attention you might get as a women in a men's world.
While most advice online on what to wear to conferences and/or as a starting professor seems to focus on being neutral, I'm not too convinced about all the black, navy and grey that is being advised*. It's not because you decided to be a scientist, that you should adhere to society's impression that equates being a scientist to being boring!
Therefore, by all accounts, start from what you like wearing. Are you more comfortable in pants or do you prefer skirts and dresses? What colors do you naturally gravitate towards? I like wearing dresses, if necessary layered over long-sleeved t-shirts. As a result my natural choice would be a dress with a jacket. I prefer clothes with a lot of red and purple, so by no means I'd force myself to wear just navy, grey and black.
If you aren't sure about what style would work for you, borrow some items from a friend, a parent or a sibling. If nobody is willing to send you off with their best clothes to a conference, then go and weed through thrift stores to look for items that you want to try out.
Over time, and after visiting a large number of conferences, I've come up with the following list of essential clothes for conferences:
1. Comfortable shoes
An obvious choice - you don't want to be limping around because you can't walk around an entire day on those heels. I swear by a pair of Naturalizer shoes and a pair of Aerosoles that I scored for about 30 bucks at DSW.
2. A white blouse
A staple in every wardrobe: try to find a blouse that fits well at the shoulders, the arms, the waist and -please- does not bulge at the buttons.
3. A suit
An easy option if you want to test the waters at a conference. Comfortable, and it gives you so many options: you can dress it up and down with accessories, your choice of shirt and you can wear the separates too in different combinations.
4. Good jackets
Whatever you wear, it looks instantly more dressed up if you add a jacket. Take enough time to find a few jackets that fit well and that are versatile, then start combining.
At my age, I think it's OK to wear a more casual top combined with a suit or jacket, instead of opting for a blouse. I usually add a flowery top to a suit, to keep everything light and to add a bit of my liking and young age.
6. Conference dinner dress
Unless your conference is super-formal, I think that it's acceptable to show a little more of your personal taste in the choice of your conference dinner dress. I typically opt for a printed dress, or an all-red dress - because that is what I like. And often the choice is a dress by Essentiel (a mildly affordable Belgian label).
7. Opaque tights
If you go for dresses or skirts, tights are still a must at conferences. You might opt for bare legs, but I never do so, also because I like how tights flatten bumps and streamline everything.
8. A big purse
Unless you want to drag the conference bag around the entire time, you need a large purse that can fit the conference program, notes, preparation material and whatever you like to have with you. I use an over-sized dark brown leather bag that I've had for many years, but I like how the leather is weathering.
If you want some inspiration, this post on My Laser Boyfriend has a lot of information, and great looks too.
*I might be biased as I was spent too much time wearing a grey - blue - white uniform during my schooldays.
What are your essential conference clothes? Do you have your favorites already, or are you still searching?