What should speakers wear?  I’ve posted on this fiendishly difficult question in the past and it seemed time to do so again, since neuroscience has weighed in on the subject recently.  But first, some of the same basic issues remain, with the fresh twists that the ever-changing fashion world always provides.

1.The trend continues toward more casual dress. If it’s OK to go to the mall in your pajamas, what fashion taboos are left?  The business world similarly has just about given up on the tie except in certain strata and industries.  Jeans used to be a no-no at conferences, but have mostly completed their world invasion.

In this increasingly low-fashion context, speakers need to be very careful not to overdress.  You don’t want to send the signal to your audience that they’re headed for an old-fashioned, stuffy, overly formal hour.  (Of course, with speaking times shrinking at the same time, you’re lucky to get an hour.)  And yet. . . .

2.You still need to dress better than the audience. Partly it’s to suggest that you take the occasion seriously, and partly it’s to create a visual sense of your expertise as the speaker.  So men, don’t show up in a t-shirt and shorts.  That’s probably the one taboo still left.  And yet. . . .

3.You need to dress to signal your tribe more than ever. So what if you’re a skateboarder-thought-leader who talks about how everything you need to know (about risk?) you learned while skateboarding?  It might be shorts and a t-shirt for you.  Further up the intellectual food-chain, the business world messily subdivides into various tribes and you need to signal yours.  Are you a designer?  Then wear something very, very funky.  Are you a creative? Ditto, with perhaps a sport coat to show that you’re able to talk to the business types.  Are you an entrepreneur?  Start from the ground up, and spend most of your wardrobe time selecting your sneakers – they seem to be key.  And yet. . . .

4.You also need to figure out your personal brand and dress for that. As a former academic, I’m always going to be in some personal variation of the jacket-no-tie on top, with either jeans or trousers beneath.  I used to firmly believe that I looked great in a t-shirt underneath the jacket, until I read a piece by a fashion expert (who seemed way more knowledgeable than me) who said, “No. Just no.”  So I put the t-shirts away and went back to button shirts.  The goal is to find personal touches that signal your brand to the audience, in a way that’s smart, elegant, and not too trendy, unless to be on trend is your topic.  And yet. . . .

5.No matter what, don’t wear red. This holds true especially for women speakers. Recent studies have found that if a woman wears a red dress the men believe that she’s signaling her sexual availability.  And the women in the audience are more likely to criticize her, in order to take her down a peg and make her less of a threat.

Does this red danger signal apply to scarves, ties, blouses and the like – a dash of red to liven up an otherwise drab outfit?  Science can’t tell us yet.  But clearly, these are murky waters and so I think it’s best to avoid red altogether.  While the studies didn’t find a similar effect for male fashionistas, given the emotional content of the color I would steer clear of it.

How do you navigate these complicated social mores, signals, and changing values?



  1. Last week, I spoke in Dallas to an audience of mostly women (3 men to 100 women). I wore a simple orange-toned red dress, with cowboy boots. The dress was stretchy so it didn’t constrain my movements. So many women told me, ‘This is your color!’ Do the studies refer to the lipstick red color or all shades of red? I will think twice about wearing that dress again….but it is a simple design, conservative neckline, doesn’t wrinkle, solid color, and I thought it made a bold statement (especially with the cowboy boots).

    I was stranded in Dallas for an extra day due to the Delta disaster. After they changed my flight for the 5th time, I changed airports on both ends, found a different airline, and booked a ticket home, arriving when they said I would. That’s a blog for another time!

    1. Thanks, Eva — it’s basically fire-engine red, but I don’t see any studies that experimented with different shades. I would avoid it, because women apparently go into two forms of self-protection, one that defends their men against the perceived threat of this sexually available women, and the other that is inelegantly called “slut shaming.” Apologies; that’s the terminology. Another issue is that there might be less of this if there are no or few men in the room — a study that needs to be done! I would take these studies with a grain of salt, because other studies have shown that the effect is fairly small, in the sense that it’s mostly unconscious, but it has been found consistently over time.

  2. I think the tie issue depends on the larger context of the outfit. If you’re wearing a conservative suit, the tie may make you look even more old-fashioned. But if you’re wearing a boldly patterned suit with a modern cut, spread collar shirt, and a tie that “pops,” then it sends a whole other signal. Still, deciding what to wear is one thing I feel like I fret over too much. On one hand, it feels so trivial; on the other hand, it can send such a powerful message (good or bad)!

    1. Hi, Rob —

      I’m not sure that you can obsess too much about clothing, since it’s the first and most powerful message the audience gets about you. Of course, what comes after matters too…..

  3. So fascinating! I’m so glad you wrote about this, Nick. I am just now prepping for a show on This Moved Me about this topic. As I work with my speakers, I always ask, “What do you plan on wearing?” It is important, and can cause problems if not thought about beforehand. The thing I typically tell my speakers is ‘Whatever makes you feel confident.” I think the personal brand outweighs the other concerns, but to feel confident you have to think through a lot of details that are impacted by what you wear (and what you wear impacts a lot!). Like: Where does the lavalier mic or the pack go? (Typically easier for men, with pants/tie/collars… have you read the recent article by Eloquent Woman about the problems with women’s clothing and the mics? http://eloquentwoman.blogspot.com/2017/04/the-mic-and-woman-speaker-practical-tips.html) Do you need pockets? Are you a sweat-er and need to think about fabric, breathability, jacket or not jacket… how high is the stage (ladies, skirts/dresses… sightlines, ahem! distracting….) … so much to think about. I say once you find something that looks good on you, makes you feel confident and ready, and deals with some of these issues – stick with it! Thanks for bringing up the topic, Nick!

    1. Sally — thanks so much for your comment. Dress for women is such a minefield on the stage. I appreciate you weighing in very much.

  4. LOVE it Nick- Thank you! Nick & Eva, any suggestions for what to wear with cowboy boots? I’m all for a beautifully cut pantsuit (old fashion?) but i LIVE in beautiful cowboy boots and would like to make them my ‘style.’ I’m a speaker but am moving into higher end stages. I have the added issue of being petite. 5’2″ 110 lbs. so i can’t wear full, flowy dresses- they SWALLOW ME! Plus, I’m over 45 so I can’t wear little country lace mini-dresses. Are skinny jeans with cowboy boots too casual, even if wear them with a high-end, well cut blazer?

    1. Hi, Shell — I think you could make the skinny jeans + boots + blazer thing work — but I’m not a fashion expert by a long shot. Eva, what do you think?

  5. PS. I live in San Diego at the beach so skinny jeans and t’s with cowboy boots are my signature style =) BLACK jeans are considered ‘dress up’ for this area!!

    1. A lot of the effect of a “costume” is in the cut, meaning the $$$$. It’s worth it to spurge for at least one stylish, brand-appropriate, not-too-far-ahead-of-your-audience outfit.

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