what to wear to a professional convention

Tomorrow I’m headed out to Atlantic City for the New Jersey State Bar Association annual convention.  I started attending legal conventions last year and this one will be my third (my fourth will be in San Francisco for the American Bar Association in August!).  Conventions and professional conferences are great for networking for business contacts, future employment, and for making friends.  You never know who you’ll meet!  I met one of my best friends in New Jersey at last years NJ convention and the people I went skiing with when I tore my ACL are friend I met at conference in Nashville!  
For my first convention I had no idea where to start with packing:  Would I need to wear a full business suit?   Are dresses ok?  What about flat shoes?  If you’re in a conservative industry (legal, accounting, finance, teaching, etc.) then here are some ideas that might help you.  Short answer: no suit needed.
1. WEAR WHAT MAKES YOU FEEL CONFIDENT
This means wear clothes that fit correctly, that you don’t have to adjust every 2 minutes, and that you feel like you look good in.  Looking good means feeling good and for networking you want to feel your best.
2. WEAR APPROPRIATE CLOTHING
That skintight dress might make you feel great, but it won’t get you any bonus points with the more seasoned members of your profession.  This is your opportunity to be taken seriously.  Dress for the job you want.  
Skirts should be around the knee.  Pencil skirts are fine as long as they’re loose enough to sit down in.  Rock a v-neck but hide your cleavage with a camisole underneath.  Sleeveless tops are generally ok, spaghetti straps are not.  It’s always better to err on the side of more conservative.
A good general rule is to stay away from anything skin tight, animal print, or metallic.  Sorry, Katy Perry.
Do not wear anything that looks like this:
3. BRING A CARDIGAN OR BLAZER
Conference rooms are always cold.  Bring a cardigan or a blazer because you will, invariably, find yourself freezing.
4. DON’T BE AFRAID OF COLOR
Some professions are known for being devoid of color.  The legal profession is one of them.  That doesn’t mean that you have to be a sheep!  Don’t be afraid of patterns (except for animal print) and colors.  Color makes you stand out in the crowd a bit, which is good when you’re networking.  Just don’t go overboard.
This week I’ll be wearing printed pants, a hot pink blazer, and a flame orange blouse (obviously not all together). 
5. BRING SENSIBLE SHOES
You’ll be walking and standing around a lot.  Wedges and heels less than 3 inches are good for this.  Professional conventions aren’t the place to break in your new stilettos.  Peep toes are ok, strappy sandals are not.  Subtle platforms are ok, lucite heels are not.  Flats are acceptable to wear as long as the rest of your outfit is professional, as flats have a way of styling down an outfit. 
6. PICK A GOOD PURSE
You’re going to be getting business cards, pamphlets, free stress balls, bottles of water, and tons of other stuff to carry around.  Make sure you bring a bag that’s big enough to hold these things and to wear on your arm.  It makes it easier when you’re holding a glass of wine in one hand and shaking hands with the other (Tip: Always hold your drink in your left hand so you can shake with your right).
7. BRING DRESSIER CLOTHES
Most conventions have events at night.  Check the social calendar ahead of time if there is one.  Sometimes there are theme nights or black tie dinners.  Pack appropriately.  If there’s a Western night at a convention in Texas, pack that hat and bandana!  You won’t be the only one dressed up and your outfit will be a great ice breaker!

8. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR BRANDS
This depends on your industry, but it’s my opinion that your Christian Louboutin shoes and screaming designer purses should be left at home, especially if you’re a young woman in your industry.  People will notice you if you’re well put together but a walking advertisement of how much money on spent on your outfit can be misinterpreted and take the focus off of what’s really important while networking: YOU.

9. SMILE
You’re never fully dressed without a smile.  Cheesy as that sounds, it’s true.  Conventions are long and tiring and can be nerve wracking if you’re new.  People are friendly and welcoming to happy people. So smile while networking.

10. OTHER RANDOM TIPS
Bring plenty of business cards, stockings (I personally don’t wear them but a lot of people do), and load up on free food!  Careful with the free drinks!  Be friendly and collect business cards–you never know who you’ll meet!  Send LinkedIn requests and follow up emails to potential contacts when you get home from the convention. Have fun!

5 thoughts on “what to wear to a professional convention

  1. Jackie says:

    great post! i did a post recently on similar topic. i work in accounting and we have a tendency to dress on the more conservative side. i've been mixing up my work outfits lately to incorporate colors & patterns. i'm also one of those people that think animal print can be a neutral, in the right texture and color i think it can be okay.

  2. Tracey @ Talkative*TLC says:

    Couldn't agree more about bringing a cardigan/blazer and wearing sensible shoes. I'm a big fan of layers for conferences since different rooms seem to always be different temperatures. And lots of water and caffeine! ha. Enjoy your time in AC!

  3. Jessica says:

    You mean leopard and a red bow belt is not work appropriate? Shocked. <br /><br />But I agree with everything you said! I am still forever searching for a comfortable modest height black pump.. but I have a really low threshold for comfort and would be perfectly happy barefoot all day… But that&#39;s another story 🙂 Great suggestions! Have fun at your convention!

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