What to Wear to a Conference

In a world where many industries are embracing a more casual vibe (especially in the wake of the pandemic, with remote work becoming the norm), it’s important to remember that when it comes to conferences, first impressions still count.

If they haven’t provided the dress code, it’s up to you to take the initiative and pack your most professional business attire without going overboard. It’s all about striking that perfect balance!

There’s such a wide range of styles for women, especially when it comes to casual, business casual, and the whole professional shebang. If you’re heading to the conference with some of your office pals, why not give them a quick shout? It’s a great way to ensure everyone’s on the same style page.

Then, you can pack up a few chic outfits that’ll have you feeling like a total boss — and comfy to boot! Finding that sweet spot between confidence and comfort is where it’s at!

what to wear to a conference

Consider the Nature of Your Business

First and Foremost, you need to consider the business you are in. Dressing for a fashion industry-related conference will be very different than dressing for a Banking conference.

Banking, law, accounting, and other financial professions generally call for more formal dress, like matched suits and dark colors. At the same time, fashion, PR, and design conferences are a place to show off your creativity in unique pieces and interesting color mixes.  Communication-type industries like real estate and sales would fall somewhere in the middle. For example, dresses and separates in classic and contemporary colors and styles would be a good choice.

Every year, I attend the LTK conference, which is a fashion bloggers conference. The attendees (fashion bloggers) dress in fashion-forward clothing in bright colors with interesting details. Still, we are always careful to look very polished and professional since we are meeting with sponsors and industry leaders! This is a photo of a bunch of us above on the way to our first seminar of the day.

Consider Your Role at the Conference

Your conference outfit also depends on your hat at the event. Are you mainly an observer, just cruising from room to room? Or you’ll be center stage, giving speeches and presentations. And, will you have any face time with the bigwigs from your company? These are all important factors to consider when picking out your conference attire. It’s all about dressing the part for the role you’ll be rocking!

While business casual will be sufficient for observing speakers and playing a more informal role in the conference, you need to dress the part if you play a main role or meet important people in your profession.

For example, a casual, low-key office-type dress, casual pants, and a nice top may be fine as an attendee. However,  if you are presenting, your outfit should be polished and command attention. You can’t go wrong with a classy dress in a stand-out color and some elegant jewelry.  For example, a solid-colored red sheath dress or a solid blue fit and flare dress. Some patterns can be o.k., but too many are distracting on stage.

If you want to look more authoritative, add a jacket to pants or a dress since a jacket automatically adds credibility and trust.

What Will the Weather Be Like When You Attend?

Another important factor when packing for what to wear to a conference is the weather to which you will be traveling. This is always tricky because you must check the weather until the last moment.

You might be all set to bring heavy fall clothes to a conference in NYC at the end of September, only to find out the day before they are experiencing a weird 80+ degree heatwave.  (This has happened to me!)

Similarly, your conference may be in Hawaii, and you’ve packed lightweight, breezy outfits only to find they predict a crazy cold spell while you are there. (This has happened to me too!)

Then there’s the question: are all the seminars/events indoors or outdoors once you get there? Usually, it’s a combination of both!

Bring Transitional Clothes

Your best bet is to bring some transitional 24/7 clothes and some layers.  For example, a jersey wrap dress with sleeves, a sleeveless sheath dress + a jacket to throw over top if you need it. Light to medium-weight dress pants, a blouse, a nice top, + a cardigan to layer just in case. This way, you are covered whether outdoors in warm weather or in a freezing, air-conditioned conference room. (Why do they keep those conference rooms so cold?)

It’s so important to study the schedule in advance, and if you know there are specific events that call for lighter or heavier clothes, you can always bring an extra lighter or heavier outfit or two.

For example, if you are traveling to Texas and the weather forecast says it is very hot, you could wear all-season clothing in the hotel conference rooms during the day, with or without layering. If  an outdoor cocktail party at 5 is planned, you could also bring a lightweight summer dress and strappy shoes to change into for the outdoor party.

On the other hand, if the conference was being held somewhere where’s it very cold and there is an excursion outside the conference center, you’ll want to be sure you brought a nice warm coat and some boots and gloves.

Knowing and visualizing where the conference activities will be held, indoors or outdoors, will help you with packing.

conference eveningwear

Evening Wear

Often, conferences call for evening wear for special parties or award ceremonies. A classic style with. some shine, sparkle, or beautiful embellishment is the best way to go. A classy, polished cocktail look is your goal.  This photo, above, of myself and my 50+ blogger friends, Kay and Beth, was taken at the LTK Conference Awards Gala on the last night of the conference in 2023. This is a great example of what I’m talking about. We all look glamorous for an Awards Gals but professional.  When it doubt, black and white, gold and silver are the way to go.


Staple Go-To Options to Wear to Any Conference

If you haven’t received a very detailed itinerary of your conference, I have some staple go-to options for you to pack to keep you in professional attire no matter what the days might call for. Again, think neutrals and seasonless clothing!

  • Black or navy dress pants – can’t go wrong
  • Dark wash jeans (in case you happen to go on any excursion
  •  for the conference. The dark wash is the most professional)
  • Pencil skirt that isn’t above the knees or
  • A-line skirts in black, navy, or grey
  • Tailored shirts and pretty blouses in neutral colors to look most businesslike. The less conservative the profession, the more color you can wear)
  • Blazers ( always a good idea since a blazer increases your authority)
  • Flat dress shoes or heels (this might depend on how much walking, sitting, or standing you will be doing). Closed-toe has more executive presence than open-toe
  • Closed-toe shoes will keep your feet protected in any weather

Things to Avoid Wearing to a Conference

Even if your conference paperwork states that casual attire is permitted, you always want to keep yourself professional. You never know who you might come in contact with, and you want to always put your best foot forward for yourself and the business you are representing.

A few things to avoid wearing to a conference include

  • Shoes look fashion-forward but are hard to walk in
  • Overwhelming or too many accessories
  • Distracting jewelry
  • clothing that is too short, revealing, or sexy
  • sparkly or embellished clothing during the day
  • sneakers – not professional
  • Jeans in a light wash or with any distressing or holes
  • Plain t-shirts
  • Shorts even at a hot weather conference

Bottom Line

In the end, it’s about planning. The worst thing you can do is throw a few things in your suitcase and hope for the best.

Please think about the image you want to project because you will be judged on that first impression. It would be best if you looked polished and professional. A convention is not a vacation. It’s business. Remember, even if you are operating a booth, you have no idea who you might meet while you’re there and what types of networking opportunities might present themselves.

Also, could you study where the conference activities will be held, indoors or outdoors, and the latest local weather? Bring seasonless clothes and be prepared to layer. A jacket is always a good idea to bring, even if you don’t end up wearing it.

And finally, remember comfort. Feeling comfortable in your clothes is important so that you will feel confident, and that confidence will shine through.

For more conference fashion inspiration, check out my other blog posts, like the Fall Dresses to Wear to a Women’s Business Conference, and What to Wear in a Cold Conference Room.

You can also follow me on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram for the latest and greatest fashion tips for women over 40.

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