Grad School Style: Packing for a Conference

As a historian, I’m expected to present my work at conferences fairly often. When I was a newer graduate student I would worry about the acceptable attire for conferences, defenses, teaching, etc. When you’re a young female in a profession saturated by older white men, you have to walk a fine line to be taken seriously while maintaining your personal style. Hopefully this post can provide some guidance about what you should pack for a conference, how to get it on the cheap (I know about that grad student funding—or lack thereof), and how to maintain some personality while looking professional.

1. Boat Neck Tee (XS-XXL) / 2. Mock Neck Tee (XXS-XXL) / 3. Grid Pencil Dress (L-4X) / 4. Tote (over 30 colors) / 5. Black Pant: Straight Size (0-20), Plus Size (16-30) / 6. Wide-Leg Pants (S-3X) / 7. Loafers / 8. Skirt (4) or Similar (0-16) / 9. Heels

Usually I will dress up a bit more on the day that I present than I will when I am just attending panels as an audience member. This is pretty standard practice so for a multi-day conference I suggest one business professional outfit and business casual should suffice for the rest of the time. I also have an affinity for wearing my school’s colors or plaid on my presentation day so I’ve built my conference capsule around that.

When it is warm out, my dressier outfit formula tends to be a pencil skirt, 3/4 sleeve top, and heels. I have three of each to rotate through; the tops are all the same (in different colors) from Target. For the skirts, I have two I bought on eBay and one from a J. Crew Factory sale. I highly suggest getting skirts that have stretch to them so they fit properly without suffocating you when you are seated. It may sound old fashioned, but for academic conferences your skirt should be at least near knee length and your top should cover any cleavage.

For the conference I presented at last weekend, I elected to change my uniform and wear pants because both Louisville and the conference rooms at the SHA were freezing. These high-rise wide-leg pants from Amazon are my new favorite find. They look professional, kept my legs warm, and look more stylish than normal workwear. Another woman on my panel even asked where I got them so I’d definitely call that a win. The best part? They were $11. They come in over 20 colors and up to a size 3X (price varies based of color and size) and they’re long enough to wear with heels (which I got on Poshmark).

For the more casual day I wore black pants (Old Navy) with a sweater (also Old Navy, but bought at Dirt Cheap) and heeled booties (Poshmark). If it had been warmer I probably would have swapped out the sweater for a blouse and cardigan and the booties for some flats. I would not go any more casual than dark jeans, even if the conference atmosphere seems pretty casual. I don’t really have a capsule built up for this part of conferences; I just wear what I would normally wear to work—which I will share in another post about what to wear to TA.

This photo is not from an academic conference, but I did wear this same outfit to present at the Newberry! You know I can’t stay away from stripes.

That being said, feel free to have fun with bold colors or patterns as long as the items fit you well, are professional in style, and don’t feature a glaring logo. Remember how I said I like to wear plaid? That is so people remember I’m the Scottish historian. I also wear blue and/or red so people remember me by my school. If you’re at Alabama, rock that houndstooth. Study French history? A sneaky fleur-de-lis never hurt anyone. Maybe you just really like leopard, so wear it! Anything that helps you stand out in a positive way is going to add interest and help make you memorable.

Bonus Section—Piercings: You probably can’t tell, but I have nose ring and smiley in all of these photos. I wore my nose ring in Kathryn’s wedding so I’m definitely not going to take it out for a conference. My advice here is to keep your body jewelry classy looking, just as you would other jewelry. For me, that means a tiny gold hoop in my nose and an easily hidden curved bar in my smiley.

More questions about what to wear to a conference or just academic conferences in general? I’d love to answer them! Just leave a comment below, shoot us an email (, or DM us on Instagram (@tailorof2cities)

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