What Should I Wear to a Conference

If you have been following my posts on this blog, you may be aware that this topic was prompted by a question asked on last week’s blog.

One of our faithful readers wanted to know what to wear to a major conference. I didn’t intend to devote a complete post to this seemingly shallow topic until the answer she deserved became quite detailed. So here we are.

I don’t believe God wants us to devote an undue amount of time and energy to our outward appearance. If we do, we have made idols of ourselves. But I think we honor Him by presenting our best selves when we appear in public. And established authors often become popular speakers. It is at the conference level that agents and editors can assess a fledgling author’s potential to become a polished and confident public persona. So yes, this topic is important.

Casual or Dressy?

In my experience, conferences tend to go in three different directions:

1.) Several days in fairly remote retreat centers. A couple of examples have just occurred: Mount Hermon and Florida Christian Writers Conference.

2.) A few days in upscale hotels near conference centers in cities, such as ACFW.

3.) One or two days in churches, which are usually sponsored by regional groups such as the new Virginia ACFW chapter, where I will be a special guest in July.

Retreat with raincoats and jeans

Generally, conference directors holding their events in retreats ask that writers dress comfortably. In my opinion, business casual is fine. Jeans are usually permissible. When I go to a retreat setting, I spend time outdoors. Weather permitting, some meetings might even occur outdoors. I’ll definitely walk outside in between buildings to go from one meeting to another. This means I’d better bring appropriate outer gear. I own a great lightweight rain coat with a hood that works well for all occasions. Some people prefer umbrellas.

Comfortable shoes are a must here. I like ballet flats. They are dressy enough to be presentable with black trousers and even some casual dresses but comfortable and durable enough to tackle gravel or muddy pathways. They also meet my husband’s idea of the “closed toe” requirement for both men and women in an office setting. Do understand, however, that as a literary agent, since I’m required to be a speaker, I tend to take it up a notch — a notion some may feel is misguided. In the meantime, you nevertheless may catch me eyeing your athletic shoes with envy! (Should I admit that?) And remember, we are the Christian community so a sense of humor about comfy shoes is always an option.

Since you may be staying a couple of days longer than shorter conferences and it may be more difficult to reach “civilization” from these locations, I recommend packing workhorse items that can perform double duty and checking your list three times to be sure you don’t omit anything. On a non-clothing-related note, be sure to warn your friends and family that wireless may be spotty so they may not hear from you. Be prepared with reading material because some locations have no television in your room. I figure if you’re reading this far into an article about what to wear to a conference, you may not know this. You’re welcome.

Five star casual

An organization with many attendees requiring a large conference center will usually have to meet in a bustling city hotel. The conference directors here want you to feel every bit as comfortable and assured as you would be in the most relaxed setting. You are of course free to dress up as much as you like. In my opinion, business casual will serve you well here, too. If you tend to be sensitive to air conditioning, your favorite blazer is your friend.

I’ve attended hotel conferences where I haven’t left the site, and therefore not been outside, for days. And since I’ve been accused of being a vampire (Hey, it takes effort to keep up this refrigerator white skin!) I am fine with that. I’m totally an Indoor Girl. But seriously, you don’t have to worry as much about outer gear here unless you have made your own plans to tour the city on your own. If you don’t mind wearing higher heels, you can chance those here since walking will be on reliable indoor surfaces. But I’d still err on the side of the nice looking but comfy mid-range heel. These conferences are likely to have banquets where you can bring out your favorite stilettos and bling. So have fun!

[Note from Steve Laube: If you are a guy and still reading this? I have a suggestion… Remember to wear pants. Especially if your name is Jim Rubart or James Scott Bell. I’m just sayin’.]

Quick but professional

The question on the blog asked about major conferences, but I don’t want to neglect the smaller conferences. They offer a chance to meet other writers and professionals in a more intimate setting at a fraction of the cost. In my opinion, these tend to be more casual affairs, but I don’t recommend treating them as too casual. You never know what unexpected opportunity may occur. A professional appearance is always the order of the day.

But tats, piercings, and ripped jeans are my brand!

Then go for it! We get it.


I’ve talked a lot about business casual and it is true that you do want to look professional to enter a profession, which in your case, is writing. All of us veterans have had to do it. I remember buying a couple of Jones New York jackets and a black skirt first along to get started. I remember seeing an actress on television wear a jacket just like mine so I still have it in storage.

To go to a conference, I don’t recommend a wardrobe overhaul. For one, buying three to six good outfits plus shoes and possibly cosmetics in one fell swoop is expensive regardless of your financial position. Second, finding that many good pieces at once, especially when you are trying to buy them for a particular event, is certain to prove impossible because you will become tired and go into panic mode before you reach the end of your mission. You are sure to make costly mistakes. Then, you will find yourself at the conference, in front of your dream agent or editor, wishing you were wearing anything but that peach-colored blouse with the coral skirt and ivory shoes with the ribbons that poke your toes.

When my father-in-law died last winter, my husband and I needed to be away from home for eight days. Neither of us had to purchase a single item of clothing. This is how prepared you want to be for your conference clothing life. And your clothing life in general.

Bottom line: please do not spend money on clothing or jewelry to impress me. Never have I turned down representing an author because I didn’t like his or her clothing, hairstyle, etc. Never. Ever.

Use business casual as a professional guideline to develop your style. If you feel you look great, go for it! I’d rather speak to a writer feeling confident in nice jeans than one tugging at itchy clothing.

Shop in your closet.  Choose clothing your friends and family compliment and you feel great wearing.

As an agent, I want you to profit from your writing career. Build your wardrobe over time. I don’t want you to spend excess money to impress me.

And most of all, write a fabulous book!

Your turn:

What is the least dressy conference you’ve ever attended?

What is the most dressy conference you’ve ever attended?

Did the dress code, either too casual or not casual enough, make you feel uncomfortable at a conference?

Have you ever seen a Christian author whose “out there” style of dress enhanced his or her persona?



23 Responses to What Should I Wear to a Conference

  1. Avatar
    Jackie Layton April 23, 2015 at 5:48 am #

    Hi Tamela,

    My mother always looks nice. One of the main things she taught me about shopping for clothes was to spend a little more on the main things, and they’ll last for years. So if you see me in the same black dress more than once, you know why. I do try to use different jewelry or shoes.

    The most casual conference I’ve attended was Weekend with Writers. It was comfortable with very little stress.

    Thanks for sharing these great tips. I wish I’d had them before my first conference.

  2. Avatar
    Heidi Gaul April 23, 2015 at 6:10 am #

    I love this advice. Though I haven’t been to the smaller conferences yet, I hope to, someday. Mt. Hermon was wonderful. One somewhat large (between size of ACFW and Mt. Hermon) 3 day conference which is well worth attending wasn’t mentioned. OCW Summer Conference is similar in dress-code to ACFW, since it’s in a very nice hotel on the Columbia River. For writers attending, the same holds true—comfortable professionalism, in both clothing and attitude. Thanks for another great blog!

  3. Avatar
    Robin Bayne April 23, 2015 at 6:15 am #

    I used to attend conferences a few times each year, and my method of dressing was to make sure every item coordinated with the others. In other words, several pairs of casual black slacks with tops, jackets, scarves, etc, that were interchangeable. Different length sleeves, but all blouses had to go with every pair of pants or skirt. Takes the stress out of not wearing the exact outfit you had planned. Also, comfortable shoes.

  4. Avatar
    Richard Mabry April 23, 2015 at 6:37 am #

    Tamela, Good advice. As a guy (hey, thanks for noticing), I have to say that for Mount Hermon-like conferences, jeans and comfortable walking shoes are the order of the day, while the ACFW leans more toward business casual (I wear a jacket because I’m usually teaching, but also because I know from experience the air conditioner is working overtime in those rooms).
    The ACFW “gala” has turned into an event that has some of the female members planning their outfits and accompanying “bling” for weeks, but men can wear anything from slacks and a sport shirt to a suit to (yes, I’ve seen this) a tux or dress kilt (the latter worn by an agent who shall remain nameless).
    You’ve given good advice–especially when you say we shouldn’t obsess over what we wear, just what we do. After all, that’s the important thing.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing.

    • Avatar
      Robin Bayne April 23, 2015 at 10:55 am #

      Richard, I think you just clarified the “must wear pants” comment above 🙂

  5. Avatar
    Judith Robl April 23, 2015 at 6:46 am #

    Comfortable is my favorite watchword for conferences. Layers for
    A/C in meeting rooms is a must. And coordinating all clothes to a single shoe color (either black or brown) helps – so everything can go with everything.

    Great post, Tamela

  6. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka April 23, 2015 at 7:24 am #

    What a practical post, Tamela. Smaller conferences I’ve attended have been our local ACFW ones. Most recently, it was Write in the Springs, where Rachel Hauck taught. She dressed up as the speaker, but I was very comfortable in a nice pair of jeans and nice sweater.

    ACFW has been the most dressy conference I’ve attended. I bought a few new things that first year, but since then, I may buy a new shirt, a little in the way of accessories, and then I shop from my closet, so to speak.

    I especially appreciate your comments about not obsessing over the clothes. They are not what makes the writer. We need to focus first on writing a good story. Thanks!

  7. Avatar
    Terri April 23, 2015 at 7:26 am #

    I’m a clothes lover. I enjoy the entire process and to me picking out the clothes for conference is part of the fun.

  8. Avatar
    Susie Finkbeiner April 23, 2015 at 8:06 am #

    I’m on the planning committee for the Breathe Christian Writers Conference in Grand Rapids. We love to see people express themselves and their style in the way they dress. It’s fun!

    I would also say that the way you dress is the way you’ll be remembered. Sometimes adding a conversation piece to your outfit it good (a fun necklace or an interesting tie). It’s a good way to stay in the memories of those agents and editors.

    • Avatar
      Jackie Layton April 23, 2015 at 10:29 am #

      Hi Susie,

      Last year I bouth a beautiful necklace. I was astounded how many people complimented me on it. One night I went with friends to eat at a restaurant. The waiter, and even a busboy, complimented me on it. I was amazed how a simple piece of jewelry could inspire a conversation with strangers.

  9. Avatar
    Carol Ashby April 23, 2015 at 8:45 am #

    Thanks for a very helpful post.

    I must echo your comment about jackets. Most conference hotels set their temperature for men in suits, so unless you are very warm-blooded, I recommend a jacket even in the high heat of summer. Hypothermia can take all the fun out of a meeting. A thought on umbrellas, too. I always carry a small folding one when I travel. Many of us in New Mexico keep one in every vehicle. If you’ve ever been in a Southwest monsoon rain, you know it can be a “ten-inch” rain where the raindrops are ten inches apart or a deluge where it falls at the rate of an inch every ten minutes. If you go southwest between June and August, you’ll want that umbrella. It’s worth the extra few ounces in your carryon to avoid looking like a drowned rat simply from walking between your car and a building.

    If budgets are tight or you just can’t stand to spend too much money on clothes (I’m one of those), you can find very nice looking business casual at JC Penney and similar stores. There are frequent 50% off sales as well. Almost all the conferences I have attended have been with scientists and engineers, so I’ve saved a lot of money wearing the same outfits for years. I do mean years. It wouldn’t even register that I wasn’t “in style.” Dress code wasn’t even on the radar for most of the men, and the concept of a “gala” was about as alien as you could get. What I wore for speaking was suitable attire for the evening dinners. I may be attending the ACFW in Dallas, so I would really appreciate more information about such a formal function. What range of “formal” do the women sport?

    A final liberating thought: When I was 20, I worried about what everyone thought about how I looked. When I was 35, I didn’t worry about what they thought. When I was 50, I knew most weren’t thinking about how I Iooked at all. Best of all, God only sees the treasure within, not the wrapping. That’s the truly liberating thought!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 23, 2015 at 10:14 am #

      Great tip, Susie! I often start the conversation by pointing out a lovely piece of jewelry or scarf.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 23, 2015 at 10:22 am #

      Carol, for ACFW, from what I’ve seen, the banquet can be pretty formal. Very nice dresses of all lengths. I haven’t seen a red carpet, cameras, or reporters and no one will ask, “What designer are you wearing?” but many of the ladies are decked out in lovely jewelry and better-than-church clothing. But if that’s not your style, don’t worry. There are lots of options. A nice dressy suit (skirt or pants) will be fine. I often wear a sparkly top and velvet pants. I usually bring on the high heels. Whatever your style, do plan to attend the banquet. It’s lots of fun!

      • Avatar
        Carol Ashby April 23, 2015 at 11:52 am #

        Thanks for the highly useful info. Sounds like the navy blazer and geometric and paisley mid-calf skirts with reds, blues, and purples that matched several blouses just won’t cut it for this event. Too bad. I was hoping to get another 6-10 years of professional wear out of those. More seriously, I will plan to wear my fanciest work boots and best jeans to the gala. If I’m going to try to make a fashion statement, that’s my best shot at being memorable. Do you think brown cowhide goes with navy denim ok or should I get some new jeans in khaki?

        For the record, the McClellan in me thinks dress kilts are just fine, too.

  10. Avatar
    Jenelle. M April 23, 2015 at 8:58 am #

    I’m a born and bred CA girl and need to remember to step up my casual beach attire from time to time. Definitions of causal, comfy, business, formal and so forth can be subjective so I greatly appreciate your great advice on the categories! Business causal, ok, got it. Closed toed shoes, check 😉

    The least dressy conferences I have attended are Christian ones at churches. Very laid back, but cold with the air conditioning on so layers it is. I’ve worn adorable strappy sandals or a small wedge with navy blue slacks and was very comfy and felt like I was dressed appropriately. And my toes are always done nice 🙂

    The most formal conference I attended was a secular one in Monterrey years ago. Maybe trendy is a better word than formal. My word what a difference from Christian ones! The agents and speakers were dressed very professionally in blazers, slacks, heels and bling, and the editors wore a lot gray and black. The writer’s attending…. some were dressed so fancy and decked out from head to toe, I felt like there was a need to impress with appearance rather than work. The whole vibe was intimidating, and I was under dressed, but didn’t fret about it. I had Jesus to navigate me through the materialistic stuff. I was there to learn. In terms of dress code, it’s been lovely and way more natural to be part of the Christian writer’s community 🙂

  11. Avatar
    Pam Meyers April 23, 2015 at 1:49 pm #

    Great post Tamela.

    The most casual conference I’ve attended was the Colorado Christian Writers Conference in Estes Park, CO. It is in a YMCA camp in the mountains and almost all people wore jeans or chinos. I saw a few ladies in dresses and wondered if they felt overdressed :-). Other conferences for me have been Write to Publish in Wheaton, IL and the Florida Christian Writers Conference when it was in Bradenton, both of which were business casual.

    Last, but not least, I’ve been blessed to have attended every one of the ACFW conferences, where business casual is the norm, but I’ve seen nice jeans and dresses there too. Yes, the Gala on Saturday nights runs the gamut of dressy evening gowns to Sunday best for the women. Since many of the years I’ve attended I have had a role on stage as a presenter, I do dress it up a bit more than when I’m not a presenter. Also, the past few years we’ve had a theme dinner one of the nights called Genre Night. Those that want to can dress as one of their characters. It’s a lot of fun and you never know what you might see there. But, costume is not required and there are many who come as themselves LOL.

  12. Avatar
    Chris Johnson April 23, 2015 at 5:20 pm #

    A well-thought-out practical post, Tamela. And Steve, I thank you. Your unexpected comment for guys truly made me laugh out loud!

  13. Avatar
    James L. Rubart April 24, 2015 at 7:24 pm #


    The only time I didn’t wear pants is when James Scott Bell stole my only pair.

    At that point I showed up in snappy casual shorts, which are good enough for me if they’re good enough for PGA tour caddies.

  14. Avatar
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