Professional Development: Dressing for Success at Conferences

Today I’m delighted to introduce Kate Laurel Burgess-Mac Intosh as a guest blogger here at EMP, with a post about how to prepare your wardrobe for a conference. Kate is one of the busiest and most experienced EMPs I know, and has been a great acquaintance since we met at the AAM conference last year. She holds a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies from Harvard University Extension School, and an Undergraduate Degree in Art History and Fine Arts. Kate is currently an independent museum professional, and her present work includes working for Reach Advisors as a Research Assistant, and facilitating learning about the future of museums and the field as a Teaching Assistant in the Harvard Extension School Museum Studies Program. She also is the one of the Professional Affinity Group Chairs for the New England Museum Association’s Young and Emerging Museum Professionals (NEMA YEPs). Kate is Principal of Revitalizing Historic Sites. She has been researching, writing, and presenting on creative ways to ‘shake up’ historic sites, especially through the introduction contemporary art, and featuring her findings on and Facebook page, “Revitalizing Historic Sites Through Contemporary Art.” Thanks again to Kate for today’s wonderful post!
Dressing for a conference is tricky, especially when one is just starting out in their career. After a conversation at last year’s Emerging Museum Professionals reception at the American Association of Museums Annual Meeting and Conference in Houston, Texas, it became apparent that there was not much out there for guidance on dressing for this type of event. The acronym of KISS comes to mind, slightly shifted for dressing for success at conference: keep it simple and stylish.
In many ways, conferences are like multi-day interviews. Dressing strategically says something to others around you, and you should take getting dressed for the event as seriously as you would take dressing for an interview. You will meet many other professionals, all with various levels of experience; they may be your next co-worker, manager, boss, or executive director, so making the best impression during your first encounter is important.
Everyone travels from somewhere to get to the conference. Point A to point B can be hard on dress clothes. Everything you want to wear has to be packed; finding sturdy and wrinkle-free fabrics is key. Check with your hotel, either by phone or on their website, prior to arriving to verify if laundry services are available, and/or if an iron and ironing board are included in your room amenities; if an accident occurs, or a shirt needs to be ironed, it is good to know what your options are before panic sets in.
Climates vary by where the conference is being held, so check and follow the weather prior to packing. If it seems appropriate, pack layers so as to be prepared for what the weather may become while you are there. A dress or suit jacket makes a huge statement when it comes to your outward appearance, and can be helpful if the building or hotel is air conditioned, or if the weather shifts during the day.
A big question to ask yourself when getting ready for conference is: if you put it on at 7:00 am (or sometimes earlier!) can it make it until 11:00 pm? Even if you hope and think you can dart back to your hotel room in-between sessions and events, it is best to plan that things can (and will) go over time or off schedule. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes that are professional, yet easy on your feet.
When networking and attending sessions, you will be receiving and handing out lots of business cards and other materials. Try to plan to have pockets in each of your outfits throughout the days you are at the conference. Leave your room and realize you don’t have any? Put your business cards in the pocket of your nametag, behind the name plate (this helpful tip was given to me by Leslie Howard, Chair of the Boston EMP group, at my first AAM Conference, and I continue to use and share it).
Short on funds? (Okay, I know, EMERGING professionals in the MUSEUM field, do I even need to ask?!) Below I’ve included a list: “12 Places to Shop Chic on a Museum Professional’s Budget.” Before you head out to shop, sign up for e-blasts from places that have clothes that inspire you; these generally include coupons, discount codes, and inside knowledge of special sales. Mentally plan outfits before shopping, so as not to ‘over-purchase,’ but to head into a store with a clear definition of what you are looking for and the gaps in your wardrobe you are looking to fill to be conference ready. For inspiration, and to help keep you on track, find outfits you like in magazines and/or online, and bring images with you when shopping. One rule of thumb to always remember is that inexpensive clothing always looks more expensive in a neutral color (think black, grey, white, beige).
Remember most importantly to reflect your personality and interests, as your dress is only the first step to conference success.
12 Places to Shop Chic on a Museum Professional’s Budget
An alphabetical list of 12 places to show chic on a museum professional’s budget in honor of the 2012 AAM Conference, for those seeking clothing that reflects their professional persona without leaving them penniless. A combination of in-person and online retailers are listed. If you have a favorite please share it in the comments section, so as to grow the list as a resource for others who want to shop chic on a museum professional’s budget.
1. Bluefly: discounted designer and up-and-coming designer clothing; added deals received via e-blasts
2. Burlington Coat Factory: discounted clearance venue for major retailers; large selection of men’s suits at most locations
3. Designer Shoe Warehouse (DSW): wide selection of shoes at discounted prices; rich clearance section with reductions between 30-90% off of original prices
4. Gilt: online designer sales, requires account sign-up
5. H&M: great location to search for accessories and basics at inexpensive prices. Watch for designer collaborations, such as recent ones with the tv show Fashion Star, and designers such as Versace, Lanvin, and Marni, at deep discounts compared to their runway lines.
6. Last Call by Neiman Marcus: clearance venue for the major retailer; additional coupons and discounts available to e-blast email subscribers.
7. Macy’s: sign up for their email and snail-mail list to receive coupons and alerts during major sales, with discounts up to 75% during end-of-season clearance events
8. Marshalls: discounted clearance venue for major retailers
9. My Habit: online designer sales, requires account sign-up
10. Nordstrom Rack: clearance venue for the major retailer; additional discounts available to e-blast email and snail-mail subscribers.
11. Rue La La: online designer sales, requires account sign-up
12. Target: selection varies by store; identify items online, and use search feature to locate at a local Target. Watch for designer collaborations (recent collaborators include Jason Wu, designer to First Lady Michelle Obama), generally priced below $100 per piece from the collection.

15 responses to “Professional Development: Dressing for Success at Conferences”

  1. I have a divergent thought on this, which I learned from my husband Sibley.
    If you are an individualist when it comes to clothes (and life), don’t hide it. A person who is willing to give the finger to conventional dressing can make a very dramatic impression, especially at a conference where there are seas of fairly similar-looking people.
    When he was 28, Sibley won this award at a conference. Everyone else was in suits or tuxes. He showed up in ripped jeans and a cowboy hat. I’m sure there were many people who were appalled by his choice, but throughout the whole rest of the conference, people knew who he was and that he had won an award. They recognized him. He had a lot of productive conversations because of it.
    I’ve battled with this over the years, especially because I think women are held to a different standard than men in this context. But I’ve always admired it about Sibley and I admire it every time I see someone at a conference who lets their personal style out. Just something to consider.

    • For many years, I’ve been working in a professional context (mostly museums, and other academic institutions), and have always had to dress professional. I also have “nontraditional” hair, a nose ring, and 5 tattoos. It absolutely IS possible to dress professional and still highlight your personal style. Interesting prints, colors, cuts are always a good way to go. I try to incorporate one statement piece–a piece of jewelry, a shirt under a suit that pops, funky shoes, etc.– worn with an otherwise traditional outfit. Many people are shocked that I don’t take out my nose ring for anything , but what’s even MORE interesting is that most of my colleagues/supervisors don’t notice! When you’re otherwise put together and you have quality skills, I don’t think people care or notice.

      • One rule civilized people use is “It is bad manners to go around correcting others’ bad manners.” Keeps the peace but doesn’t mean others don’t notice. How one dresses shows respect to those around them.

    • Nina, I was just about to reply with a very similar answer. I wear vintage clothes. I don’t wear them every day, but they are a significant part of my wardrobe. And so I usually wear one or two vintage dresses whilst at a conference. They are not the smart chic wardrobe that many others would wear, but they show me as I am. They also often prove to be a useful way to set myself apart. With red hair and a wardrobe that’s 50 years out of date, I am reasonable noticeable and memorable – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
      If a conference is an extended job interview, then the place I want to work is one where my particular talents and perspective is appreciated. If that means that some people will dismiss me because of what I’m wearing, that’s fine. I probably don’t want to work with them anyway.

    • Nina
      What would have happened had Sibley not won that award? Other professionals would have, most likely, judged his appearance. The award, like it or not, gave him a chance to show his peers that his appearance has nothing to do with his professional skills.
      Most EMPs do not have the luxury of showing up to a conference and winning an award; in fact, most are there to learn, to network, and to make a name for themselves in the field.
      The best advice is to look presentable in what you are wearing. If you are uncomfortable in a suit, then your body language will reflect that. If you are confident in ripped jeans and a cowboy hat, then make sure you continents exude that confidence knowing that it may be off-putting to people.
      Kate’s blog was meant for EMPs and those who have never been to a conference. There is nothing worse than packing for a week and realizing your wardrobe is too casual, or too professional – if you feel like you stick out like a sore thumb, chances are that will affect your confidence.

      • I think Sibley would have been memorable award or not (and that his clothing choices were not dictated in any way by the award). He was/is an iconoclast who does his own thing. Maybe a more appealing trait in tech than in museums…
        I absolutely agree that people should wear whatever they feel most confident and comfortable in–and in many situations, comfort comes from at least some degree of conformity. I grapple with that frequently. When I was starting out, I was one of those people who hated wearing business clothes–but I wasn’t comfortable wearing what felt natural. Sibley suggested to me that showcasing independence is a plus–even when you are an anonymous young person–for exactly the reason you describe. When you are confident, it shows–in any outfit. That said, i’ve gotten more conventional with clothes over time–perhaps acculturated to the museum norm–and that probably makes things easier too. I meant no ill will with my comment.

  2. Thank you so much for providing ideas of retailers for conference and professional attire! While it may be a little late to order online for AAM and while not every state has access to some of these stores you list (so that shopping in-person can occur to make sure the clothing fits), this is a nice starting list of possible places to peruse for us emerging museums to consider the next time they are in town, or the big city. Thanks, Kate!

  3. You know what my biggest problem is with dressing for conferences? Shoes. Shoes that go with clothes that look suitably professional but that can be worn (and walked in, A LOT) for 12-18 hours. Shoes that are comfortable tend not be shoes that I prefer to wear for professional events.
    On a normal day at the office, I either wear heels if I know my day can accommodate it, or I wear something more comfortable if I know I’ll be up and about most of the day. If my day requires something more dressy as well as lots of time on my feet, I’ll usually bring two pairs of shoes and trade off.
    Then there’s the packing need to not bring 6 pairs of shoes along, and I have a real dilemma.

    • I can not agree enough with Kaia’s statement. Shoes are the biggest issue. It can’t be overstated that you should wear comfortable shoes. Convention center floors are not that forgiving. So be on the lookout for me. The one nicely dressed, but with shoes that might not exactly match. Hopefully my jewelry will distract everyone from the shoes.

  4. Lately commenting around the InterWeb is being a bit wonky for me. Apologies if this appears twice.
    My problem for conferences is always shoes. What on earth can I wear that looks good with professional attire, but is comfortable for a day (or series of days) where I’ll be out and about for 12-18 hours? (Curses on men for not having this problem.)
    I have a cute pair of Skechers Mary Janes that loosely fits both requirements, but really only work well with black pants. In Phoenix, it is roughly acceptable to wear nice looking sandals year-round, even for professional conferences. In the rest of the world it’s not, but that provided a nice option for something comfortable that could go with a dress.
    Suggestions in the shoe department are welcome!

  5. I appreciated this post and comments, as it is something I’ve been wrestling a bit with myself. Currently I serve as Director of a small historic house museum. While I am keenly aware of being the public “face” of this museum, I have to be practical (and myself, thanks ninaksimon) for all the tasks at hand. Suits are simply not possible on a regular basis, because I end up performing a lot of “unexpected” tasks, such as plumbing, cleaning, and yard work. I believe how present ourselves at conferences should be an extension of our daily lives, and my daily life simply doesn’t always involve a suit. Although I don’t expect to have to unclog a toilet at a conference, I am still at my best when I am myself. I like to be stylish, which sometimes incorporates less traditional attire, such as capri pants or jeans, keeping in mind what is approriate and presentable. I attended a conference once, of interpreters, where everyone wore standard work attire–jeans, boots, shorts, loose long hair, etc. I found it refreshing and not inapppropriate.

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