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What to wear to a business conference

The event looks interesting. There are many great sessions from which to choose. And the location is ideal; in fact, it takes place in a city you’ve always wanted to visit.

The biggest dilemma is what to wear.

Are you nodding “yes”?

Take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. What to wear to a business conference is confusing, even when guidelines are posted at event websites.

Seeking assistance

One of the problems is that these guidelines are often vague. They use terms like “business casual” or “comfortable, professional clothing.” Perhaps the most ambiguous description is “appropriate conference attire.”

Hello? What does that mean?

Most attendees are left to interpret these “guidelines” on their own. Few get it right.

If you’ve attended conferences, you’ll likely agree. Yet, the guy with the stained T-shirt, sport coat, and boat shoes thinks he is wearing “comfortable, professional clothing.” The woman with the leggings and low-cut top also feels she looks “appropriate.”

Why is it so difficult to get this right?

In addition to vague guidelines, another problem is that business leaders in certain industries now wear casual clothing all the time. In the tech industry, for example, it’s not uncommon for male executives to wear jeans. And start-up companies in a variety of industries are often led by people who disrupt the norm, including workplace dress codes.

If you’ve ever watched a TED Talk, you’ve probably seen a presenter who has bent, if not broken, the rules with regard to professional business attire. So, you may ask, why can’t you?

In short, because you’re not the CEO of Apple.

Adhering to standards

Even in today’s admittedly more casual business environment, there are still standards of business dress—and these standards apply to casual clothing worn at work-related events.

For women, here are a few acceptable options:

  • Dress pants with a jacket or cardigan
  • A skirt with a blouse and sweater
  • A dress with a sweater
  • Comfortable dress shoes in good repair; flats are acceptable

You can’t go wrong with solid, neutral colors. But this doesn’t mean you can’t include some color. You might wear black dress pants with a black knit jacket and a complementary print blouse, for example.

While these outfits may seem dull, they can still be fashion forward. For example, the dress pants might be ankle length, the jacket cropped with a longer blouse beneath it, and the shoes might include some unusual details. Visit the websites of clothing retailers for fashion ideas.

You might also want to check out Pinterest. However, be forewarned that these are boards with other people’s interpretations of business casual and appropriate conference wear. Remember the woman mentioned earlier, with the leggings and low-cut top? Don’t follow her recommendations.

For men, here are a few acceptable options:

  • Dress pants with a button-down shirt
  • Chinos with a button-down shirt
  • Sport coat
  • Comfortable shoes in good repair; no sneakers

Low-key, neutral clothing is best. Leave the bright green pants at home. Ditto on the white shoes.

Even though you may not plan to wear a sport coat, bring one anyway. If an opportunity to meet with a potential boss presents itself, you can look more professional by simply donning the jacket.

While following these basic guidelines, you’ll also want to consider location. At a conference in New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston or Chicago, attendees are likely to dress more professionally, where in Las Vegas, San Diego, and Tampa, attire will be more casual. Likewise, you’ll want to dress for the weather.

Further tips

In addition, make sure you have clothing suitable for various activities that you’ll attend as part of the conference. Is there a picnic? A formal dinner? A baseball game? A rock concert? If attending any or all of these (lucky you), you’ll still want to dress professionally but appropriately. A good litmus test is to ask yourself, “What would my boss think if s/he saw me in this outfit?” Or, better yet, “What would a future boss think of me if s/he saw me in this outfit?”

Finally, you may have some downtime during the event. Many conferences are held at hotels or resorts, and most of these locations have a pool; some have a beach. This means you have an opportunity to be seen by your boss and colleagues in a bathing suit. Regardless of how fabulous you look, leave the string bikini at home and opt for a modest one-piece or tankini. If you’re a guy, the same goes for the Speedo. Pack some swim trunks.

Don’t kid yourself: appearance matters. That’s why it’s always best to err on the side of conservative when it comes to conference clothing. If you do, the worst that can happen is someone will think you are one of the conference speakers. And who knows, if you look the part, you might get invited to present at next year’s event.


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