Culture Costume and Dress

5-7th May 2021 Birmingham UK

The Joys and Challenges of the Virtual Conference

March 25th, 2021

For the past year, like many organisations, the Dress in Context Research Centre has had to move to an online presence. We had a successful online symposium in August looking at Dress in a Time of Crisis, but now we’re facing the challenge of a much bigger and longer conference, and I’ve been reflecting on the pros and cons of the virtual approach. 

The great advantage of a virtual conference is that we can welcome people from all over the world. CCD has always attracted an international audience, but this year the response from other countries is more marked than ever. We have received submissions from every continent – apart from Antarctica (maybe we’ll get a late request). Given that we also have an awe-inspiring range of topics, this should guarantee some excellent discourse. It does mean that there will be issues around different time zones, and of course, we’ll do our best to factor these into the programming.

By contrast, the significant downside is the absence of real-world contact. There won’t be the usual social opportunities that generally form a significant aspect of conferences, and while this has meant a saving in conference fees (we are only charging a nominal fee to cover our expenses), and less work for the committee, the lack will be felt by most of us. The conference dinner, for example, will surely be missed. These things are peripheral, however. The purpose of an academic conference is to disseminate research, to engage in academic dialogue with peers, and the absence of a social side shouldn’t matter. Except it does. The opportunity for a brief exchange of ideas over coffee; the conversation over dinner that might grow into a future collaboration; the excitement of a student who gets to talk to names they have previously only come across in publications: these are often the highlight of a conference, and what delegates take away.

At CCD we have given much thought to how we might mitigate against this absence. We’ve been devising alternative activities –  some (though not all) may involve alcohol – and we’ll be sharing them over the coming weeks. We still haven’t come up with an alternative to the serendipitous encounter, though. If anyone has ideas, please let us know.

The conference will be hosted on Zoom, something we have all become familiar with over the last year – both professionally and socially. Zoom has enabled us to keep in touch with friends and family, to continue our work lives safely, and to hold events like CCD. Unfortunately, as with many aspects of life, there is a price to be paid. I think we’ve all been surprised by how tiring online meetings can be. After all, we don’t have to move from our desk – or kitchen table, or bed, depending on personal arrangements – the meeting comes to us. The problem is that online encounters operate in a different way to real life, and the nonverbal behaviours that have evolved to make interaction with others easier become overemphasised and intrusive in a virtual world. In real world exchanges, we rely on a raft of nonverbal cues to ensure we understand each other; but these are much harder to send and receive in an online situation, and consequently, we end up working much harder to achieve the same level of understanding. Similarly, because we are constantly staring at the screen, we can’t escape eye contact. In real life eye contact is intermittent, and we feel uncomfortable if it becomes continuous. And perhaps even more stressful is being faced with an unremitting image of ourselves (though I’m told you can switch this off). Research tells us that when faced with an image of our self, for example, in a mirror, we have a tendency to self-evaluate (and as you might expect, women do this more than men). This kind of self-focus tends to be negative, and therefore distracting and ultimately, dispiriting.

While you may think this makes for depressing reading, there is one upside that I haven’t mentioned yet, and that is the absence of the what to wear dilemma. This is particularly so, perhaps for doctoral researchers who are new to the conference world. I have often seen online discussions around what is appropriate conference dress – not too formal, not too casual, definitely not too short. In a Zoom conference, all that disappears; we can only be seen from the shoulders up, so, as we’ve seen from social media, anything goes.  The news may get even better over time. The growth in virtual fashion allows us to inhabit and share images of different outfits, wear them only once, and make them as  outlandish as we please. This is a move that is very attractive to younger Instagram users, who can clothe themselves in an array of different outfits, yet at the same time salve their sustainability consciences. Recent advances in digital fashion mean that there will soon come a time when we can clothe ourselves in outfits as exotic and exaggerated as we please. Perhaps use virtual clothes to curate a new and exciting digital identity. In the meantime, we might want to think about how we can enhance our image at conferences. Given the shoulder-up view, we might want to focus on a hat. One of the conference papers considers the importance and significance of hats – perhaps we should all take notice!

— Anne Boultwood