Conferences: Is it time you had a fashion makeover? (Jessica Peters & Deena Ebaid)

This post is cross-posted from the academic conferences blog Conference Inference, with kind permission. Thanks for sharing your experiences of conference organising with us, Jessica and Deena! View original post


Camila Damásio |
Don’t be fooled by the title, this blog post is not just for fashionistas. For those who are curious, the psychology behind fashion is quite fascinating and can even be employed to up your conference networking game. Take this blog post for instance – if it wasn’t for a love of fashion, conferences and twitter (#pinkpantsuit), we wouldn’t have been invited to write this blog piece at all!

For many people (the two of us included), fashion can be used to showcase personality, and help feel more confident and better placed to accomplish the task at hand. Think of the old adage “look good, feel good”. I (Jessica) have applied this notion in many aspects of my professional life – job interviews, psychological practice, and university teaching. For the latter, my fashion choices were particularly helpful when I first started tutoring undergraduate classes. I was nervous about public speaking and doing a good job and was only a few years older than many of my students. Dressing smart helped me feel more confident, competent and visually set me apart. So why not apply this principle to conferences?

You can never be overdressed or overeducated – Oscar Wilde
 Presenting and networking at conferences can be daunting for many early career researchers. Worries about public speaking, contributing to discussions, talking to your science heroes, and maybe even a touch of imposter syndrome (see also Kate Carruthers Thomas’ post).  Many conference attendees are often so busy communicating study findings that it can be easy to forget that personality and individuality can also make an impact. After all, academic conferences are more about research and less about who we are as individuals or what we wear. Or are they...?
What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language. —Miuccia Prada

Deena Ebaid presenting at the ACNS Conference 2018
I (Deena) remember preparing for my first academic conference and as part of that preparation, I went shopping for ‘conference clothes’. I recall thinking ‘what do I want these clothes to say about me? Why does it matter? Do clothes even say something about you?’ Later on, a pivotal moment that returned fashion at conferences to the forefront of my mind, was when another postgraduate student at a conference told me that I “didn’t look like a PhD student” implying that I looked un-academic somehow (see the photo above). Was my fashion and personality impacting on how seriously people took me and my research? This has resonated with me because it was very early in my research career and it left me anxiously wondering : what does a scientist look like? Since then I have come to learn that there is no uniform in academia – just like there is no mould for being an academic.  There is so much diversity in research topics and fields and of course, the researchers themselves– and isn’t that one of the greatest things about research? It took me a long time to realise that the way I dressed at academic conferences should not be about (what I thought) was expected of me. It also took me a while to come to terms with the idea that my personality is allowed to be showcased at such academic events instead of being hidden behind formal wear and a big scientific poster. Several conferences later, it has become clear that fashion, as an expression of my personality, is an important part of academic conferences.
Although this post has, to this point, focused on positively utilising fashion to enhance academic identity, it is also important to acknowledge that conference attire choices can (unfortunately) have negative implications. Many readers will probably agree that there is often an implicit expectation to dress professionally at conferences. Researchers may feel a need to adhere to this code or risk feeling that they may not be taken seriously or that they do not belong. This may be stronger for certain conferences and disciplines and likely varies widely in terms of what ‘professional dress’ means, making it all the more difficult to grasp an already subjective concept. If there is an implicit expectation for a certain dress code at these events, then anything that strays from these norms may stand out – and this is not always a comfortable experience. Have you ever walked into a room and felt like you were under- or over-dressed and all eyes were on you? Also, consider how individuals of different cultures, religions or identities may feel perceived by their peers. If attire does in fact say things about you, it may also be the case that fashion may be used by others to inadvertently objectify or infantilize the wearer. Despite careful selection of ‘appropriate’ attire, this is sometimes unavoidable because other people’s perceptions and judgements about attire is subjective (The pink pantsuit probably raised a few eyebrows). As women in STEM, we feel fortunate to be able to express ourselves through our fashion and maybe even help challenge expectations of what neuroscientists look like. So this begs the question, what can science tell us about how fashion can be used to help us to be perceived positively, and how can we apply this to conferences?
Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak. —Rachel Zoe
Proactive clothing choices have been shown to significantly improve the wearer’s mood, confidence, self-esteem, sociability and occupational competency (for a review, see Kwon 1994).  Those who dress to boost confidence are also more likely to be at ease with themselves, with their clothing choices used as an opportunity to make a positive statement about who they are. Clothing preferences are also used by others to infer a wearer’s personality. Others perceive those who make deliberate, but subtle fashion choices that do not conform to the setting, as having higher status, competence and autonomy (Bellezza, Gino, & Keinan, 2014). For example, a professor who wears red Converse sneakers during a lecture, or someone who deliberately chooses to wear a red tie at a black-tie affair. Moreover, it only takes others a split second (100ms to be exact) to form a first impression of you (See Willis & Todorov, 2006). This means that even before you’ve had a chance to dazzle them with your research prowess, your clothing has already spoken volumes.

Jessica Peters presenting in her #pinkpantsuit at the ACNS Conference 2018
From a neuroscientific perspective, our ability to process visual information at any given moment is limited. Consider how much information we are being bombarded with every day, let alone at a conference - information overload! So how does our brain choose what to notice and what to ignore? We have evolved to preferentially process the most salient information. Therefore, information that is more visually salient is also more likely to capture attention, be processed, and retained in memory.  In fact, at a recent conference, a colleague of ours was easily found in the crowd by her now employer after they were told by her PhD supervisor to find “the girl in the brightly coloured dress”. She is now off to complete a postdoc at Cambridge. So, if you enjoy fashion, consider what you want your conference attire to say about you. Think about how you can use fashion to boost your networking, stand out from the crowd (figuratively or literally), and be more easily remembered by prospective colleagues and employers.


Jessica Peters (@Jessica Peters) and Deena Ebaid (@Deena_Ebaid) are both completing their PhD research in the field of cognitive neuroscience under Professor Sheila Crewther, and teach in the psychology department at La Trobe University, Australia. Jessica is a registered psychologist (Clinical Neuropsychology) and her research focuses on the role of visual attention in reading. In particular she is interested in how visual attention interventions can improve reading in children with dyslexia. You can find out more about Jessica’s research here and here. Deena’s research focuses on how the healthy brain processes information across different stages of the lifespan. Specifically, she is interested in how best to measure cognitive processing in healthy aging, and how these findings may apply to clinical populations with neurological insults. Deena is concurrently completing a Master of Occupational Therapy at La Trobe University. Follow Deena’s updates here and here.