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what to wear to a 3 day business conference?

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Enough of this feminist nonsense, let’s talk about something exciting like clothes ;) .

the problem

For my day job, I’m presenting a paper at a professional conference. It’s a 3 day event and it’s far enough away that I need to fly, I’ll be checking in to the conference hotel the night before. The programme is seminars all day every day, plus there’s a fun quiz(!) on the checking in evening, and a drinks reception and 3 course with wine dinner on the last evening.

I’m a naturally light traveller - in an ideal world I could do this as carry on only but I’m not wedded to this. The biggest technical problem that I’m having at the moment is that I’m not sure what to take to wear. I strongly suspect that most of the other conference delegates will be men. The last conference I went to it was at least 80% men and they wore suits, shirts and ties.

clothes that I already have

These are the work-related clothes that I currently own:

  • 2 suits, one herringbone, one very tiny houndstooth, both black and white that looks like grey. Not interchangeable.
  • 6 solid colour long sleeve or 3/4 sleeve tops (colours like soft blue, green, lilac, pink, red etc)
  • 6 solid colour short sleeve tops (similar colours as above)
  • 6 solid colour fine knit sweaters (similar colours as above)
  • 1 navy cord jacket
  • 1 black cotton a-line knee length skirt. Lightweight, goes with at most 1 of the suit jackets but I’ve never actually worn the two together.
  • 1 jeans (not really work related, but maybe to travel in?)

and the shoes/boots:

  • purple Doc Marten boots (they are slightly smarter than they sound, I wear these to work normally)
  • black Court shoes with pointy heel (very pretty/smart, but not greatĀ for walking)
  • flat black shoes (quite pretty/smart, ok for walking)
  • purple ballerina shoes (pretty but not leather)

I’m not sure what to take, or even, what to wear. The weather is likely to be 10C-14C (low 50s in Fahrenheit?) and probably rainy, but I will be indoors nearly all the time. Three days is a longer business trip than I normally do and I don’t know whether it’s ok to wear 1 suit for 3 days or is that skanky? Should I take both suits and wear one twice? I also have no idea what to wear for the dinner.

ideas and solutions?

I could buy a couple of things, but what? I’ve considered buying any or all of:

  • another suit but plain - black or charcoal
  • plain black trousers (or navy if I can find any?)
  • plain black (or charcoal?) fine knit cardigan
  • pretty/patterned top for dinner

Normally, I try and avoid black as it doesn’t really suit me as well as other colours (like navy). But when I perused the internet last night, for petite clothes it was all black. This is an improvement on the time that it was all brown. I don’t want to spend too much money on new things, but am willing to buy stuff that I’ll use repeatedly.

This is the first time I’ve presented at a conference, and according to my boss, I’m quite junior to have had a paper accepted. I’d like to make a good impression, and need to be well-dressed in order to do so (partially as a confidence thing). On the other hand, I am not made of money and want to get the most bang for my buck so to speak.

Help me please - leave your suggestions in the comments. Comments by men would be appreciated as much as comments by women.

If helping me with my fashion sense is not quite your cup of tea, I’ve got a post planned which will go with my comparison of taxes in the UK and US to compare expenses - hopefully you’ll find that more interesting.

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12 comments for “what to wear to a 3 day business conference?”

  1. I would take the suit that can be worn with the black skirt and the flat black shoes. Wear the black skirt and a sweater for travelling and the “fun quiz”. Wear the suit and x colour top day one, suit jacket and skirt and y colour top day two, suit and z colour top day three. (Or switch these days around if you’d be more comfortable presenting in the suit).
    For the dinner I’d go back to the skirt with a top and maybe take the heels for that or the purple ballet flats. Make it look a little more dressy with accessories.
    I wouldn’t bother with the jeans unless you’ll want to get changed each evening. I would however invest in a charcoal cardi, but then I think cardigans are vital as a dressup/dress down layering piece.
    If it’s 80% men, then I imagine there very few will care or notice what you are wearing, even to the dinner. In my field very few people even change for the end of conference dinners.
    I wouldn’t rush to get a new suit now, unless you find a great one, but in the future I’d recommend looking for a plain charcoal gray with skirt and trouser options.

    Posted by Looby | September 11, 2008, 3:33 pm
  2. I would travel in the jeans and a top, bring one of the suits and the skirt and the flat ballerina shoes, present your paper in the suit with one of the tops, and wear the skirt with one of two other tops your brought the other day. conferences are often less dressy than you expect. i know in my field no one even glances at what you are wearing.


    Posted by neimanmarxist | September 11, 2008, 5:09 pm
  3. Wear a pretty conference-appropriate top with jeans on the plane with ballerina flats.

    Bring ONE of the suits (which is good for 2 days).
    Bring another outfit for the middle day so that you break it up (or wear the suit all 3 days)

    And for underneath the suit, you already have that top on the plane, so bring another 2.

    With jeans you can mix and match to make at least 3 outfits with the tops, and more if you add the jackets over top of the jeans if you want.

    Bring a pashmina too in case it gets chilly.

    Personally, I don’t wear suits, but for such a short time (3 days is not 3 months!) I bring 2 suit-like sweaters, 2 trousers, 4 dressy-ish tops and jeans. 1 pair of heels and 1 ballerina flat, 1 pashmina/light jacket and lots of accessories :) It’s enough for a month with that wardrobe I bring. I just mix and match constantly.

    Posted by Fabulously Broke | September 11, 2008, 5:52 pm
  4. Thanks for all the suggestions so far. I know that I might be overthinking this a bit, but I’m quite nervous about presenting so I don’t want to worry about clothes whilst I’m there, if that makes sense.

    Posted by plonkee | September 11, 2008, 7:05 pm
  5. This is my life. :)

    The presentation absolutely requires a suit. Anything that involves shmoozing or being seen by VIPs requires a suit. Checking in can be more flexible with business casual (I assume you have time to change before the quiz?).

    Are any of those tops button down? You can wear that with a nice skirt and get away without a suit. Does that navy cord jacket go with anything? At worst, you can pair that with jeans for travelling/checkin/quiz.

    My take on it is that being a junior woman means (perhaps unfairly) that you have to out-formal the men.

    Posted by deepali | September 11, 2008, 9:05 pm
  6. The navy cord jacket goes with the trousers from either suit, the effect dresses them down slightly.

    Posted by plonkee | September 11, 2008, 9:52 pm
  7. do any of the sweaters go well with the skirt? you could probably dress it up with nice jewelry…?

    i don’t know about wearing the same suit twice. i tend not to see that happen, unless it is a black or charcoal suit. of course, the men do it and get away with it. but women’s suits aren’t made like theirs….

    Posted by deepali | September 12, 2008, 1:13 pm
  8. I would recommend investing in a good, solid color pantsuit. If black doesn’t work for you, go navy, gray or brown. You can wear the pants minus the jacket with other tops. I find that you can wear the suit with a blouse one day and a day or two later you can wear the pants again with maybe a nice sweater. No one is going to notice that you’re (gasp!) wearing the same pants twice if they’re a plain, solid color.

    Posted by Kristen | September 12, 2008, 4:43 pm
  9. I often travel for 2-5 day trips and for three days, you could get away with just the 1 suit. Wear it on the day our your presentation. Pair the Navy Blazar with pants on day two and the skirts with the blazer or a nice sweater on day three. (Depending on how formal the other people are.) If you feel you need to be more formal take both suits and wear one day 1 and 3 and the second on day two. I normally travel in tan pants and a sweater/nicer shirt that I can wear either dressed down or dressed up for non conference/business evenings. I would also advise getting a dark soild color suit for the future as it can be worn multiple days in a row with different shirts, and if you work with men they really don’t notice at all. (or even better get a suit that has matching pants and a shirt as they will think the whole suit is different.)

    Posted by Jane | September 15, 2008, 1:33 am
  10. I know this is after the fact, but advice for all: BRING MORE THAN ONE SUIT. Or else if you spill coffee/food/wine on it you’re screwed. This just happeend to me in October - no food at a conference, so sat in a session with a mango smoothy that got tipped onto my pants. Tried to wipe it off with napkin (and kleenex that helpful women sitting near me pulled out of their purses)but then had little white fibrous bits all over wet spot on croctch of pants. This, just half an hour before giving a poster presentation. Argh! Solution: I rigged the waist tie/belt thing from my sweater to hang down over the wet spot, and then waved my arms while talking so nobody would notice down there. It dried up eventually and I made it through.


    Posted by heather | November 15, 2009, 5:41 pm
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    Posted by Pinoy Pride | January 22, 2010, 12:28 pm
  12. i am having trouble in this area as well .i wear skirts alot i do not want to wear black but nothing too catchy either. i am attending 3 day bussiness conference wit my husband in north carolina we live in ms.I want to be elegant, sexy, professional all at the same time what to buy to pull this off.

    Posted by emily forster | June 27, 2010, 6:24 am

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