Because I work at home, my everyday wardrobe is dominated by t-shirts and jeans. But a few times a year I travel to conferences for work, and each time I have to wear a costume: my professional one.
To me, the words slacks and blouse are cringe-worthy. They aren’t as offensive as moist, because slacks and blouse are missing the dreaded oi combo, but I still feel compelled to say the words in a nasally voice, making it clear that these articles of clothing — if not the words themselves — are undesirable.
A few years ago, as I squirmed uncomfortably in our conference booth, tugging at my collar and re-tucking my shirt, a male colleague pointed out that I wasn’t required to dress so formally. Many of the other conference attendees and exhibitors wore t-shirts, and wearing one of our company-branded short-sleeve shirts was always an option. I explained that I didn’t want anyone to see my tattoos, one of which now goes from my left shoulder to my elbow. “Why do you hide them?” he asked. I told him I liked to dress the part.
As a woman in the male-dominated world of open source technology, my “work costume” is key. I’m already somewhat of a novelty. A decade ago, for example, when a conference attendee (usually a male) walked up to my booth, he didn’t assume I was the managing editor of the tech magazines spread out in front of him. Instead, if he spoke to me at all, he’d ask whether any of our editors were at the conference. My slacks and blouse didn’t firmly place me in the “booth babe” category, so generally visitors assumed I worked in marketing or had another, less-technical role at the company. Still, I knew I had to dress the part if I wanted to be acknowledged at these events. Any outfit too short could swing me to the booth-babe side, and anything that showed my tattoos made me worry that I would look like part of a freak show. So I kept my clothing fairly vanilla, somewhat ironed, lint brushed and professional.
Like it or not, people make assumptions about you based on how you are dressed. I can stand at the booth, surrounded by tech magazines, and can talk to visitors about our articles, authors, and subscription options, but if I’m wearing my Alice Cooper concert tee with my tattoos hanging out all over the place, I don’t know how much they’re going to hear me. The simple slacks-and-blouse combo minimizes my appearance and maximizes my ability to do my job.
More women seem to be trickling into my field, but we’re still very much a minority. I’m older now, so I don’t have to worry about being mistaken for a booth babe, and I like to think the world of open source technology is becoming a little more diverse. I now have more than 15 years in my field, so I no longer feel like I have to prove myself at every conference expo I attend. But I still always wear my professional ensemble. When I’m at home writing and editing, I’ll still wear my t-shirt and jeans with my cat curled up in my lap. But when you see me at a conference, I’ll be dressed for the part, in costume: my freshly-pressed slacks and a blouse.