Heidi Waterhouse speaking at The Lead Developer Photo credit: © Katura Jensen 2016

Lady Speaker Clothes Crisis

There are about a jillionty articles on how it is difficult to dress as a woman while maintaining standards of professionalism, temperature control*, comfort, pockets, and compliance with the male gaze.  This is a post on one specific form of dressing: Dressing to be speaking on stage.

Personal style

If it’s not something that you would willingly wear in any other context, don’t wear it on stage. You’ll feel distracted and look a little miserable. If you are a jeans and a polo shirt kinda person, rock out with that polo shirt. If you have an affection for crinolines, rock that out, too, as long as it feels like clothing to you, and not a costume. You want to be able to forget it once you get on stage.

I am currently feeling really inspired by this post on Toddler Grandma Style, by Cynara Geissler. It’s all about dressing for joy and not “attractiveness”.

I have spent the last year speaking in clothes that I made myself. My sewing skills are now sufficient that as long as you don’t look at the inside of my seams, you don’t think “homemade”. Making my own clothes means that they’re distinctive, they fit properly, and they remind me that I am competent in more than one area.

I think it’s really useful, if you are even slightly outgoing, to have something remarkable about your appearance. That helps people find you after your talk, even a couple days later, and pay you the NICEST compliments.

This hairstyle is both awesome and easy to find in a crowd.

I’m almost 6 feet tall, and I have a bright-colored mohawk. I get all the compliments people are willing to offer, because they can find me.

The exception to only wearing what you’re comfortable in is makeup. Even if you don’t usually wear makeup, you may want to consider some if you are going to be on a lit stage and/or you are a white lady, because stage lights will wash you out something fierce.

Heidi Waterhouse speaking at The Lead Developer<br />
Photo credit: © Katura Jensen 2016

In this picture, I’m wearing lipstick and mascara, and I feel like that helps my face indicate my emotions better. (also, that’s a Washington Dress, by Cashmerette. Turned out fabulous.)

NOTE: Always, always take your badge lanyard off before you speak. It’s amazingly visually distracting, it brushes against the mic wire, and it draws attention away from your face.

The Microphone Problem

This is the bane of my existence. You may notice in the picture above that there is no way a lapel mic clipped to the neckline is going to pick up my voice appropriately. I have had this problem before, and I deliberately wore a short, rubber-corded necklace that we could clip the mic to. Also, in another advantage of sewing your own clothes, I added pockets large enough to put the mic pack in.

Here’s what you need for each type of mic. If you don’t have a belt or pockets, your sound tech is going to look both sad and awkward as they try to figure out where exactly you can store the mic pack.

Headset, or Brittany mic

  • No dangly earrings, at least on the headset side.
  • Someplace to put the mic pack.
  • A hairstyle that allows you to mess with the hair around your ears a bit

Lapel mic

  • Someplace to put the mic pack.
  • A neckline or necklace within about 6 inches of your mouth.

Hand mic

  • No clothes problems, but you may literally have your hands full and be unable to gesture.

Podium mic

  • No-one’s favorite. Make sure it is adjusted for your height.
  • If your A/V setup allows, close your laptop lid. It blocks a lot of the body language of shorter speakers.

The angle is weird

If you are on an elevated stage, which will happen at some point, remember that people are going to be looking at you from a totally weird, slightly upward angle. Skirts that are a fine-to-flirty length at ground level will feel horribly up-skirty when there is someone staring up at you. They’re not trying to make you feel weird, you’re not trying to make them feel weird, but it happens. I have seen other women have success with pants, skirts at least knee-length, or opaque leggings.

And if you’re going to be seated at a panel table and you like wearing skirts: contact your organizers to find out if they are going to have table skirts or modesty panels. No one wants to spend an entire amazingly thoughtful discussion remembering to keep their ankles crossed. If the organizer can’t tell you, play it safe and pack some options.


Pockets are amazing. You know that. Pockets are good in and of themselves, for sticking your hands in. But you can also use pockets to store business cards, microphone packs, your cell phone, your clicker, your lipstick….well, we’re getting carried away there.

Even the best dresses-with-pockets do not have the same structure that supports our jeans pockets. If you put too much crap in your skirt pockets, you will look like you are saving food against the coming winter AND there won’t be room to shove your hands in.  When you’re speaking, take out all your pocket stuff except the mic pack and your clicker. Set it next to your laptop, or better yet, in your laptop bag. No one will sneak up on stage to rifle through it.

Misogynist haters

There is a sadly good chance that someone will comment negatively on how you choose to present yourself. It’s like Global Thermonuclear Annhilation – the only way to win is not to play.

So when someone tells you meanly that you’re too fat to wear something, or kindly that you’re a little too old for that, or whatever crappy thing they come up with, remember that you’re the one that wrote the talk, and pitched it, and got on stage and gave it, and they’re the ones who can’t think of anything to say about the topic and are reduced to talking about your style. Whatever. Haters gonna hate.

I’ll usually say something devestatingly neutral like, “Thank you for sharing your opinion”. If I’m feeling really feisty, it’s more like, “I just talked about software design antipatterns for 45 minutes and you’re worried about my love handles?”.

As always, if you feel like this is weird or creepy in any way, contact the conference’s CoC team. You are not responsible for saving people from their lack of tact.

Also, shoes

You will walk miles at any reasonably large conference. If you want to wear kitten heels, or heel-heels on stage, go ahead (I would fall off and dieeeee). But bring along a pair of actually comfortable flats, not the completely unpadded ballet flats that fold up like socks. Conference center floors are concrete. My current favorites are Skechers Mary Janes. They’re super cushy, dressy enough to wear with a dress, casual enough to wear with pants, flat enough that it doesn’t throw my skirt hems off.

(I should not have looked at Zappos, I should not have looked at Zappos…)


I like wrap dresses in general, but they are a little exhausting to wear on days you’re going to be sitting in conference chairs all day. Even wearing slip-shorts (a must) and a cami, I felt like I was one inattentive moment away from really distracting a speaker.

* I blame the Patriarchal Thermostat Hegemony. I’m going to be in Las Vegas. In August. I expect I’ll be the one in a hoodie and handwarmers because of air conditioning.

What about you? Do you have any particular tips or tricks to share about how you dress to be on stage?


3 responses to “Lady Speaker Clothes Crisis”

  1. I have to underline the dress-for-the-mic advice. I always plan on a lapel mic; that way I can be happily surprised for a headset, and have somewhere to put the lapel mic. One piece of advice: put the lapel mic on the same lapel as the shoulder you’ll be gesturing over for the screen (I gesture at the screen, not everyone does), that way your voice doesn’t drop out when you’re pointing and talking.

    If you are a long-haired type person and are using a headset mic, and are a habitual tucker of hair behind your ears, doing so while on stage can be loud. Or worse, knock the mic lose. Discourage yourself from doing that by putting the clicker in the hand on the same side of your body as the mic.

    Also, stay in the lights. You want to stay uncomfortably staring through the glare. If you’re not, your face is in shadow and not readable from the back row. Generally this means staying to the front of the stage.

    In my experience, it’s generally warmer on stage than not. That said, LED lights are slowly taking over and those don’t cast nearly as much warm as the 500w bulbs in old-school types.

    Sheer fabrics are somewhat less sheer when lighted for stage. A visible under-shirt or layer in the conference halls will be less visible on stage or on camera. This has to do with the angle of lights. Theater types use this all the time, google the phrase ‘theatrical scrim’. The exception here is if you’re going to be strongly back-lit for some reason.

  2. Excellent article, & with regard to panels, I’ve found this often involves hopping up onto a high chair or stool (rather than sitting at a table). If I know I’m going to be on a panel I generally wear pants.

  3. […] Lady Speaker Clothes Crisis – Heidi Waterhouse Great piece on women’s clothing and public speaking. (Including tips for dressing to use a mic.) https://heidiwaterhouse.com/2016/07/29/lady-speaker-clothes-crisis/ […]