Everything You Need To Know About What To Wear At A Conference

From welcome dinner to panel discussion, fellowship night to closing ceremony
IMAGE Paramount Pictures

It’s conference season again! Whether you are lumped under any of the general categories of VIP, panelist, or participant, the only difference—beyond the small, questionable niceties such as plated dining or a mention in the souvenir program—will be how much your mental attendance matters. If the subject is close to your heart (or your career path), or, God forbid, if you are a paying guest, well then, by all means, perform that pre-conference work with the zeal of a bar exam take-two-er.

If you are one of those lucky achievers who get sent all over the country or the world to show up, then be thankful and check if the mileage points accrue. Either way, by the time you’ve checked into your conference hotel (hopefully not under a two-to-a-room setup), half your work is done. 

The other half still lies ahead—which means making your appearance worth every peso or dollar you or they have spent on your presence, thus ensuring that you are invited to the next one, and the next one. Because we presume that you’ve got enough chops to be invited or accepted in the first place, that only leaves one area where you must learn how to maximize every opportunity: your attire. 

So without further ado (as the conference emcee will likely say at one point), let’s begin!


1| The Welcome Dinner 
Think of the Welcome Dinner as your coming out party. The participants, of course, will be expected by the organizers—no matter how often they’ve done this—to watch the proceedings, which will usually entail three or four interminable welcome remarks, a keynote speech, and, if you’re abroad, a cultural show that may involve a vocalist and an exotic stringed instrument, or a local choir singing, inexplicably, Broadway hits. But really, only first-timers ever take it upon themselves to look at the general direction of the stage. The convention vets will be busy taking inventory of two situations: the food and the fellow participants. 


A suit never fails to make a good first impression.

This is why your first appearance needs to be well-planned: if it’s a government thing or a business conference involving finance or energy, wear your best suit—and then pack it up afterward because you should never wear it again. If it’s a tech conference, wear what you wore on your last casual date, or watch the latest TED Talks to see what the “game changers” and “thought leaders” are wearing—just please, not jeans and a turtleneck. If it involves culture or “change” or “building bridges across nations,” wear a suit but ditch the tie—because you want to look like you’re too involved in your life-changing work to be bothered about dressing up. Bear in mind, how you dress here is how they’re all going to remember you by.   

Do: Overdress when you are in doubt—if you do find yourself dressier than most of the other participants, thank yourself for not being shabby, but adjust accordingly down the line.

Don’t: Pack heavy when your conference involves more than one location—you’ll find yourself wishing you’d left that extra pair of jeans at home. 

2| The Panel Discussion 
This is where “real talk” is supposed to happen, and where you’re meant to ask that question that no one else in the history of mankind has ever thought of. Which means that everyone is going to want to ask the same question, so you need to act fast and look nice while you’re rushing toward the floor mic.

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Say what you want... in your second conference suit.

High-flyers will of course wear their second conference suit—usually cut a little looser to be more forgiving on the jet-lagged or buffet-ready body. Or wear the same suit you wore at welcome night with another tie if you like play it a little wild. If the settings are more relaxed, you can really live on the edge by putting on a casual jacket and switching your suit pants for dark jeans. Of course, feel free to assert your social dominance by walking that dull conference room carpet in your choice of financially irresponsible footwear: one of those collab sneakers or a pair of designer trainers. If you find yourself needing to be more culturally aligned, find solace in a good, unscuffed pair of leather loafers (with dark socks, please—and let this be the only time you will wear your loafers this way).


Never: Wear those soft and formless leather shoes with rubber soles people like to wear at conferences, unless you are a Nobel prizewinning scientist and the guest of honor (and only at the same time) 

Forever: Leave the bottom button of your jacket unbuttoned, no matter how fat it makes you feel  

3| Fellowship Night
Fellowship night is often the real cornerstone of a conference, usually held at a mid-priced establishment shut down by the organizers for plenary indulgence, and where the real “real talk” happens. How real it gets is usually determined by how much has been budgeted for alcohol, and there’s always that participant who tries to get way with saying something sexist or racist who ends up regretting it for the rest of the conference. Bear in mind that the only ones who can really get away with things like these are at the that high-end bar down the street or up the elevator where the bigshots (comprising 1% of the conference) are having a side meeting, making real deals and drinking the real good stuff. 


Let loose... but maybe not too loose.

But if there’s a common rule to follow regarding fellowship fashion, it’s that it’s a fellowship: don’t attempt to outdress your co-participants, no matter how much you wish to impress them or sleep with them, because this is where the Tao of Conferencing takes effect. You are meant to harmonize with them and blend with them, and you must do your best to be warm and well-remembered. And no matter how cynical you may be, this is where you end up making true friends whom you will wish to see next year. Throw on a sweater over that shirt you wore that afternoon, put on your most well-fitting non-branded shirt. You may also (slightly) underdress to give people the impression that you’re used to this kind of thing. You’re there to make others feel better—when others feel better, you feel better, and you will be better at holding your drinks and remembering your hotel room number (or someone else’s).   

Do: Remember people’s names by looking at their nametag and devising a way of mentally connecting it to their face—for example, “Jason” was that guy who always talked about having a son in law school, or “Candy” smelled like candy… 

Don’t: Wear your nametag more than once—you will end up the only one wearing it at one point, and that is very sad.  

4| The Closing Ceremony
Most conferences will end with a closing ceremony of some sort, where a message of unity, or solidarity, or hope, will be revealed or arrived at. Many conference goers may end up not remembering the exact message at all, partly due to the fact that by this time they have given up being “people persons” and have redirected their efforts to figuring out how much shopping or personal time they have left before boarding time.


But stand your ground. Resist the temptation to wear that office shirt again by crumpling it up and stuffing it into that plastic laundry bag you’ve never ever thought of surrendering to housekeeping. Put on that reserve outfit you didn’t know where to wear but thought to bring anyway: that spectacular knitted shirt that always made you feel like a million bucks, that jacket that you splurged on but never really had the guts to wear. Aim to make an impression—for the eyeballs and the photos—that will last longer than the conference cycle. 

Okay, bye, guys. Gotta shop.

Because, who knows? Maybe they’ll ask you to head a panel next year, and put you on the VIP list in the next; maybe one day soon they’ll ask you to deliver the keynote. Look into the mirror, and remind yourself that to be a VIP, one must first be a good participant. And to be a good participant, you must dress for the conference, and not let the conference dress you.  

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Sarge Lacuesta
Editor at Large, Esquire Philippines
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