What to wear for a TED Talk and how I dealt with last-minute TED Talk dress disaster

2020 offered all of us unexpected challenges.

International borders closed, a global pandemic was declared, my partner and I became separated for 10 months, stranded in different countries, and I applied to speak at my local TEDx Townsville.

Suddenly my biggest challenge was what to wear for a TED talk.

I had exactly one month from the day I heard about my selection to the day of the event. The big TED stars prep for an entire year! But 2020 was an unusual year. So, I got to work.

I got a reasonable draft written, I asked for tons of feedback, and then I spent every waking hour rehearsing.

I hadn’t expected that what to wear for a TED talk would become an issue…

But this was a global pandemic. Everything was unexpected. I’d come back to Australia with a small carry-on, planning to stay a week, two at the most. The wardrobe that I keep in my tiny granny flat in Australia had been radically decluttered the year before.

It offered two passable options: a black dress or a funky blazer that I could pair with white jeans and a red top. Both options looked reasonably nice.

But when I saw the stage, I knew that black wasn’t going to work. The backdrop on the stage was black and in a black dress I was going to look like a disembodied head and pair of arms.

The blazer with the funky pattern of thin asymmetrical stripes wasn’t going to work either. It would make me look like I was standing underneath a strobe-light disco ball. Apparently, cameras don’t like pinstripes.

I needed a new dress.

But this isn’t Sydney. This is Australia’s remote tropical Far North and there aren’t many shops to choose from. During a pandemic, there are even fewer. It was too late for online shopping and the nearest shopping centre is 200kms to the north and 300kms to the south of my house. I clocked up many miles searching every shop in Townsville and Cairns, and I found absolutely nothing.

Friends happily lent whatever had survived the last wet season: blazers in lawn green corduroy, white linen and padded chambray, but nothing really worked.

I combed through a dozen thrift shops, but I didn’t find anything even vaguely appropriate. Low supplies of second-hand clothes was another side effect of the pandemic I hadn’t expected.

A week out from my TED talk, I finally found it in the Red Cross charity shop. A beautiful sleeveless red dress in almost my size. In the change room mirror it looked perfect.

What to wear for a TED talk

I left it in Townsville for the week to get it dry cleaned. The dry cleaning cost more than the dress!

When I picked it up the day before my talk, I didn’t think to try it on. The only thing on my mind at this stage was my talk. I was rehearsing like a crazy woman by now, speaking endlessly to myself, in the streets, in the car, in the swimming pool.

It was 30 minutes before I was due at the event when I finally thought to step into my dress. It was a little loose around the bust and my bra was showing. Both of my back-up bras were also showing. My heart began to race in my chest. I looked like I’d just stepped out of the Red Cross change room in the wrong bra.

I wasn’t in tears yet, but close to it.

I searched the place for safety pins. As a last resort, I ripped the safety pin off my name tag and promptly stabbed my finger drawing blood. It was 10 minutes before I was expected at the event. I said “f*** it” and drove to the venue, my finger wrapped in a bandage made from toilet paper and my bra showing.

In the Green Room, I asked one of the other female presenters to help me fasten the safety pins. Between us we have two PhDs, but this required a different skill set. Whatever we tried, it looked like someone had adjusted my dress at the last minute with safety pins. I couldn’t go on stage like that.

My stomach was beginning to tighten, but I couldn’t afford to burst into tears just before my TED talk. Not over a bra and not when I was wearing mascara. So I took a deep breath and calmly assessed my available options. There was only one option  left.

I found some duct tape in the workshed backstage, taped my nipples down and took my bra off.

Who would ever know?! Oops, well, now you do.

So for the record, I proudly gave my first TED talk braless!

You can watch my full Ted Talk here.

What’s a tricky situation you handled in the most unexpected way?

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Hi I am Kerstin

Kerstin Pilz

I am a published author and former academic with 20 years university teaching experience. I discovered the healing power of writing when I went through the darkness of grief. Writing was my lifesaver.
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