15 September 2006

What to Wear: Academia Meets Style

Scene: Motor City Girl, a full-time PhD student and dear friend of mine (we've shared, well, we've shared a lot, starting in 3rd grade) wrote looking for a little inspiration. She's the mother of a nearly 3-year-old (the other cutest little girl in the world), wife to a car-crazed engineer, and an accomplished knitter. As an academic mommy, she has to travel to conferences, and needs to pack smart. She wrote to me about a month ago, and I thought our conversation might help other conference-bound women out there - or that someone else might have some good ideas to help her.

Motor City Girl: I have a challenge for DC Celine. What should the up-and-coming PhD student pack in her suitcase when she heads off to a conference? Need clothes to cover three days, typically in the summer. Comfortable shoes a must – lots of standing and walking. Typical attire for men is golf shirts and khaki’s with a few black suits sprinkled in among the more conservative. There are not enough women to say what is typical. The clothes should say, “Here is a woman who has got it together.” Don’t want people whispering, “She should spend more time on her research and less time on her wardrobe.” I really like my orange sweater & red sequin skirt outfit (Talbot’s), which I think has the right combination of dressy-but-casual, conservative-but-unusual. Still don’t have shoes that I love with it. And that still only covers one day…

DC Celine: Hey - I saw this last night - when's the conference? where?

Motor City Girl: Oh, there is nothing coming up just now. I’m not fashionable enough to think that the season or the city would make much of a difference. We are stuck in hotel conference rooms all day, so there isn’t much of a sense of place or time. This year I had a conference in Monterey with the market research crowd in June and then a National Science Foundation conference in late July in St. Louis. The NSF conference was geek-o-rama – all the Engineering professors who have funding from the NSF. The ‘uniform’ seemed to be a tacky golf shirt with your school’s logo and khaki pants. But, get this, on the day they present, most everyone puts on a suit and tie. And not a stylish suit, but a Midwestern-going-to-church-dark-grey-or-black suit with a white poly-blend shirt and a tie from 1995. Even *I* looked pretty good by comparison and you know what that means… But, just in general, I’ll be going to these conferences every year and it would be nice to build up a good traveling wardrobe. My dream is a complete three-day wardrobe that only requires one pair of shoes, preferably my Clark’s ; )

DC Celine: true, true, on the sense of time...

my first thought - straight or bootcut pants (ignore the "skinny pants" thing you might see in the mags or store windows - disturbing) in wool gabardine. a grey pinstripe is grown-up and serious, but you can wear some fun stuff with it, too. of course, black slacks work too (but can feel like a rut). you can also wear either more than one day of the conference, and, if there are evening receptions, you can easily pair with a more "going out" top, and not have to pack much. the gabardine tends to travel well, and hang out if it does get scrunched. apply the same fabric & colors to skirt choices, a-line or slight trumpet. i'm also a fan of the "adult kilt," or knee-length pleated skirt. if it's in a heavy fabric, it hangs great. if it's in a light fabric (those super-light cottons that are everywhere), it can add a little whimsy without being too young.

next, what about a blazer on top? it would help deal with the amazing ability of hotel conference rooms to be freezing one minute, boiling the next. you can wear one on the plane to eliminate the need to pack, and pack one. blazer in this case would be something a little shorter, that hits at the hip, tucks in at the waist, and maybe even has a 3/4 or bracelet sleeve. it's something i desperately need to add to my closet. you could do just about any color that strikes your fancy. the other thing that came to mind is your shrugs.* i first thought of the red one you wore with your flowered dress to the wedding. if you had a fitted, fine gaugue T-shirt with the slacks, you could through one on during the day when you're not presenting, if it's more casual unless you're on stage.

but my other thought is that as a woman in a male world, it seems to pay off to be a little more dressed than the boys. it's just a gut feeling, but it seems to work, especially when you're fair & tend to look young (like us). so the shrugs might be a little too casual. blouses. try orvis button downs. they have a great no-wrinkle version. the only problem is that they're not fitted, so can look a little bulky unless they're a tad too small (i have to roll the sleeves up on the one i cribbed from my mom). again, under the blazer, you can do a fine-gauge T and still look professional, or a cashmere or merino shell. i have a favorite brown v-neck merino sweater that i wear just about any day - except when it's 300 degrees. today, for example, i wore a cashmere short sleeve v-neck. i've recently realized that v-necks look much better on me - i'd guess the same is for you.

shoes - go with what you're comfortable in, of course. you could do a flat - there are tons of great ones out there now - and that can be your touch o' different, too. or find a low wooden stacked heel. they're stable & i think a little forgiving. am i off base? of course, i've written a novel...but i'm home by myself (widow of the fantasy football draft night), and watching Scrubs.

Motor City Girl: Thanks for the novel. It’s just what I need. I think you are about right and I’m probably half-way there to having everything I need. At this point I think it is more a matter of coming up with a color palette that will mix and match well.

One of the things I did purchase specifically for Monterey was a simple A-line skirt in a washable synthetic gab from Eddie Bauer. I was surprised at how much I liked the A-line. Having grown up on pencil skirts, I always thought the A-line would look a little baby. The color is a medium/neutral brown. Probably the next step is to get slacks, maybe in a darker brown, and shoes that will work well with both. That should cover the bottom for three days and then I can mix-and-match with the tops depending on the season. A blazer in a color that will work well with the browns would top it off. If only I could find the time to go shopping! It’s so hard to find pants that flatter my size 14 mama tummy.

I have this problem that I buy pieces that fit well without thinking about how all the colors will work together. I have a great cotton casual blazer that has the right cut and it great to wear on a plane, but it is in a sagey-green-neutral and the only thing it seems to look good with is denim.

Speaking of shrugs, today I’m wearing the red shrug over a white fine-gauge scoop-neck T and a denim skirt. It’s a bit 4th of July, but I like it. I also finished up the turquoise shrug and I’m pretty happy with it. I wore it for the first time on Tuesday over a brown T. Fall comes right along with September around here, sigh.

*Motor City Girl knits beautifully, and has created some easy-to-throw on and look-put-together shrugs.

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