style matters

Guest Post: Dressing for a Conference

I know I’m wading into an area where much screen-ink has been spilt in academic/women/fashion blogs, but please indulge me.

I am a fairly new associate professor – I say this because presumably now that I have tenure I could show up in La Senza flannels if I chose, but more importantly, because I feel a certain mid-career obligation to dress for work, whether that means the classroom or a Senate meeting. I confess my personal style is more conservative than fashion-forward – I don’t have a lot of daring when it comes to dressing (e.g., I’m unlikely to mix and match patterns), and my professional persona tends toward the feminine (heels) and classic (tulip skirts). Plus, I’m the coordinator of a multidisciplinary program, and as a junior administrator I feel a degree of responsibility (and a tigress-like protectionism) toward my program to project a certain competence.

I guess all of this is my way of saying that it isn’t much of a surprise that I am — more often than I would like – appalled by what my colleagues choose to wear, particularly when representing themselves at conferences: the meetings of our professional associations.

I go to conferences a couple of times a year. I like this part of my job, a lot, and consider it a professional perk, rather than an obligation. Last summer I was at the first World Congress of Environmental History, held in Copenhagen. The women from the European organization looked polished and professional: low heels, scarves and shawls, suits of different shapes, enough flair to suggest that continental je ne sais quoi. The Canadian women? At a reception (!) one senior historian was wearing black jeans and white sneakers, another khakis and hiking boots. What, were you thinking the hors d’oeuvres would be served at the end of a ropes course? I’m sure the hiking boots didn’t erode the quality of her paper, but I felt embarrassed on behalf of the Canadian contingent. Really, we’re not right out of the bush; we have telephones in Canada and everything now.

I know it’s unfair: men can travel for three days with a laptop satchel carrying their extra shirt and a toothbrush, whereas I can’t go for three days with less than three pairs of shoes (dress heels, casual flats, and sneakers for a morning walk). And no doubt it’s perpetuating a stereotype to make a fuss; wouldn’t one expect a young woman to care about such things? But on the other hand, perhaps it’s less a gender thing than an age thing. At a conference I was at last week, the young male Ph.D. students looked casual but put-together: argyle sweaters, collared shirts, polished shoes. Well done. Their supervisors looked rumpled and – well, like stereotypical academics. (Incidentally, it’s the younger scholars – not yet protected by tenure, or even employment – who also tend to respect panel time limits.)

But I don’t want to be thought of as a stereotypical academic. (A good, ambitious, accomplished academic, yes.) Are we trying to suggest that we’re too smart to care? That we’re too enmeshed in our research to be burdened by worldly things? However superficial it may be, I unconsciously allot more respect to someone I meet who is dressed as though they respect the venue, the project, and the company. I wholeheartedly believe that what I do – teaching and research – is important, and so just as I dress for the classroom, to indicate respect for the environment, I will dress for a conference as well.

The funny thing is that it’s not hard, or even burdensome. A well-cut suit jacket, even a leather jacket, or a wrap. Tailored pants or a skirt (or for more than two days, both). A sheath dress if you’re lucky (?) enough to attend a conference somewhere warm (like Toronto in 2006, when Congress coincided with a wildcat TTC strike and humidex warnings). A pair of polished, office-appropriate shoes, whether heels or flats. A flash of colour or a signature piece of jewelry as an accent (at this conference last week a colleague wore azure jewelry against an orange jacket – lovely). An overcoat that signals office, not Mountain Co-op.

I shudder to see, among colleagues of either gender:

  • shapeless pieces, like big sweaters, or too-casual tops, like sweatshirts (yes, even the “classy” ones with half-zippered collars).
  • sports jackets that match neither the tie nor the shirt they’re worn with.
  • jeans. For God’s sake. Or men’s go-to favourite, khakis, that have lost all shape.
  • ornate dangly earrings that brush your shoulder – even if you’re “artsy.”
  • sandals, orthotics, or any shoes that could also be worn to the farmers’ market.
  • apart from truly classic shapes, like a sheath dress, anything that’s older than the youngest person in the room (and that could easily mean 1990).

So, please. Dress it up a notch. We’re professionals.

Claire Campbell
Dalhousie University

8 thoughts on “Guest Post: Dressing for a Conference

  1. O, your dry wit made me laugh this morning. And I agree (though, it should be said, my outfit today is breaking at least two of your rules): clothing is one of the few signifiers we can control. A tool best wielded with intent!


  2. Interesting post, and for the most part I agree that I sometimes cringe at what some people choose to wear when they give talks — particularly fellow grad students who, like me, are on the job market.

    I think there's another side to this, though, at least from my perspective as a young female academic in an extremely casual field. Precisely because many people in my discipline would never wear anything more formal than jeans to a conference, I avoid dressing up too much lest I look like I lack confidence or like I'm trying too hard. For me, a suit is absolutely out of the question, unless it were meticulously stylish and I wanted to establish a reputation as an eccentrically natty dresser.


  3. When I was an undergraduate (quite a while ago now), one of my profs once said “I became a sociology professor so I would never have to wear a tie again.”

    I think there is a contradiction between your opening in which you state that some of this is “your style” and the later part in which you seem to want to impose that style on everyone. There is sloppiness, to be sure, but suits? Really?

    Perhaps it is too much to hope for a situation in which those of you who wish to wear them don't feel “overdressed” or “like you are trying too hard” while those of us who would rather not don't get judged as inappropriate, either


  4. I love this post. I really, really do.

    I also think that Weathering brings up a good point. As a relatively newbie academic, I often used to feel that I might be judged as less intellectual because I dressed up at conferences.

    A couple of years ago, however, I realized that dressing up was, for me, a source of empowerment. I presented at a conference in which a couple of “superstar” academics attended my panel. One, in particular, dwelt in the superterrestrial realm of academia. And she looked god-awful. As in: shapeless, colourless, bowl-haircut kind of awful.

    Since I am a) superficial, and b) insecure, I immediately felt better when I saw her. “Yes!” I shouted (inside my head), “she looks hideous! I can feel better when she rips my presentation to shreds!”

    See, I may not be super smart, or massively published, or well-known, but I can dress. And, for me, there's power in that. So now I dress (and probably overdress) and feel more confident as I present my work.

    And to the well-known, “superstar” academics out there who DON'T dress well: thank you.


  5. Hi Claire!

    I have always referred to Congress as “Outward Bound for Academics” — I have never understood why people need convertible pants and a Tilley hat on an urban campus. MLA is much more formal, I find. In any case, at both giant conferences, junior members of the profession, by and large, dress more carefully and with intent than do senior members. That's interesting, I think.

    I think the real value of this piece is first, its calling out of unprofessionalism and sloppiness–your explanation of work-appropriate attire as a mark of respect for you profession, your students, and yourself is compelling.

    Second, you note that crazy undercurrent of 'I show the world how smart I am by complete neglect of my worldly self' that seems to underlie some academics' willfully awfully self-presentation. There's something wrong, for me, in so denying the self-in-the-world. However, I don't think the antidote is found only in the style rules you set out.

    I do wear jeans–my 'work jeans' are either very dark wash and are worn with business-y shirts and jackets and shoes, or they're very dark wash, in a trouser cut.

    I do wear ornate dangly earrings, too–I am making an effort, in any case, to demontrate a care about my self-presentation that indicates that respect and professionalism you flag, and to put the lie to the idea that smart and well-put-together do not … go together. The details of what kinds of pants or what kinds of earrings people use to make this happen matter less to me.

    Thanks for the wonderful post–very interesting!


  6. Hrm… as a woman of size, I mildly resent the implication that dressing professionally is easy. When one's choices are often limited to mumus and sweatpants, it can take a lot of dedication and money to find clothing that is both functional and stylish. I do agree that attention to professionalism is important; just remember that some people may be stuggling with realities (poor selection in small towns, limited income) that make that professionalism difficult to acheive.


  7. I agree–we're professionals and so it's okay to dress that way, however we see that for ourselves. As a gentle butch woman, I do not wear dresses or makeup, but that doesn't mean I can't wear a good pair of pants, a decent jacket and a good blouse. I think a lot of academics don't dress up because they want to look anti-establishment. But honestly, who are we kidding here. If you're really anti-establishment, dress well and fly under the radar, fiendishly plotting all the while. I know several people who do…

    Thank god the 80s is coming back…now I can wear tuxedo jackets again.


  8. I think I dress “well,” but that is often jeans — dark jeans, black jeans, any jeans in good shape — with a jacket, leather jacket or blazer, nice sweater, and sometimes with a long top that comes below my short jacket, boots of various descriptions. Hardly ever any neutral looks. I like colour. I have to say that neutral and business dress at university always makes me a little sad along the lines of any missed opportunity.

    I still remember going to a job talk at the U of A many years ago, and the candidate was wearing a beige skirt and jacket with, I think, a white shirt. As she read her paper she was tottering on heels that clearly she had not worn for a very long time, if ever. She looked mousy, and uncomfortable all at once. She was hired. When she showed up on campus in September, she was all black leather jacket and silver studs! I was amazed retroactively at her earlier performance and relieved.


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