What to wear at networking events and how to stand out


May 27, 2018 - Warren Fowler

Networking is at the core of business development and sales (particularly B2B), however picking out what to wear can be a mental obstacle course, with so many different messages being thrown your way. Do you go business casual? Business formal? What about adding in a new trend to the mix?

There's no one protocol when it comes to dressing for these types of professional events, and it will certainly depend on which industry you work in or are trying to break into. In this article, we’ll cover tips for what to wear in different situations and what you should be avoiding.

Why is appearance important?

Business connections and partnerships are established during networking events so looking the part is essential. As you connect with people in your industry, new opportunities arise and your presence at these events helps build your reputation.

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, medical students who wore lab coats that they were told belonged to doctors performed better on tests than those who wore street clothes or were told the (same) coats belonged to artists.

What does this mean for you? People trust others according to their appearance. They may perceive you as important, intelligent, successful and so on, all depending on what you wear.

Different outfits at a networking event

Talk to the organizers if possible

Some networking events can be very formal while some have no dress code at all. If you’re attending an event for the first time, such as a conference or charity dinner, you’ll want to feel comfortable and not worry about what people think of your appearance.

Before you attend any networking event for the first time, try to talk to the organizers of the event and ask them what the dress code is. You can probably find this out through their website of photos on their social media account, but it’s always good to make contact with the organizer, who may be able to help you in some other way in the future (whether that’s getting hold of conference photos or wanting to present a the next event).

Comfort should be your priority

We know that initial appearance is important as people form a subconscious impression of us. However appearance isn’t limited to what you are wearing. With the hundreds of meetings, networking events and conferences you’ve probably attended, what are some of the behaviours and appearances you’ve observed?

Something which is very obvious is discomfort. Whether someone is wearing a jacket and tie when it’s too hot, or a thin shirt when the air con is on full blast. It not only looks awkward, it also impairs the focus of the person affected.

When you attend networking events, make sure you prepare for various scenarios:

  • Will the room be too hot or cold?
  • Should you take a bottle of water?
  • Should you carry a jacket or jumper?
  • Will the colours you are wearing show sweat marks?

Sterling Branson, working in business development at UKBestEssays, says, “When it comes to professional networking, the most common mistake is overthinking what to wear. People tend to overcomplicate it and fear judgement from others – the key is to aim for comfort so that you can be at your best in conversations.

The basics of networking outfits

For guys, dark trousers and a white button-up shirt are great for most occasions, but you’ll quickly blend in with the other people wearing exactly the same as you. If you want to stand out a little more, go for something that shows you have a personality and you pay attention to detail.

For those of us who aren’t lawyers or accountants, most networking events are on the side of business casual. Play it safe in a blazer with patch pockets. It’s more casual than a full suit, and you can avoid wearing a tie. Try a lapel pin on top of your shirt for an instant conversation starter.

Business clothing, smart and casual

Determine the type of event before choosing how casual to dress. Both of these outfits would be out of place at certain networking events.

A study on wearing glasses have shown that they make us look smarter, so you could also opt for a pair of non-prescription glasses if you don’t usually wear them.

Clothing at different types of networking event

Here are some ideas for what to wear at different networking events. Read this article to learn about them in more detail.

Career fair

For formal careers events, dress as you would for a job interview. Chances are if you're at a job or career fair, you're in the market for a new position. While handing out your résumé or CV to potential employers, you want to make the best impression possible so they take your application seriously. You might even have the chance to do an on-the-spot interview, meaning you should show up in your best outfit. Wearing a suit is a fail-safe option for these types of professional events.

Get your outfit together, make sure it is crease free and check how you look in front of a full-length mirror. Here are some quick tips for this type of event:

Men:

  • Wear a suit, shirt and tie
  • Wear matching socks
  • Don’t wear trainers, even if they’re black

Women:

  • Skirts or dresses should be no shorter than just above the knee. If there’s a split at the back, check this will still be respectable even if the skirt/dress rides up a bit
  • Check that the length of your skirt or dress is still OK when you sit down, and that the lining doesn’t poke out at the bottom
  • Check that no part of your bra or your cleavage will show in any position (including leaning forwards), whether due to neckline or gaps between buttons
  • Estimate how far you’ll have to walk and wear shoes that are comfortable enough. If you want to wear high heels, considering bringing a smart pair of flat shoes in your bag as back-up
  • Avoid chipped nail polish

Both:

  • If you have piercings, keep their decoration discreet
  • It’s OK to wear religious dress
  • Prepare an outfit that can be adapted for different temperatures. The building you’re in could be over heated or have powerful air-con, whatever the weather outside.

Conference or seminar

If you're attending a conference or any seminar-type events, networking won't be the centre of attention, but you'll have the chance to meet professional peers throughout the day and during the conference breaks. You don't have to wear your best suit, but business-casual outfits are highly encouraged.

Networking lunch with colleagues

Social events with colleagues

Meeting co-workers for after work drinks? Attending an organized networking night at a bar? This is a tricky event to dress for, as it's not totally office related, but it's also not quite the same as a night out with friends. When in doubt, always err on the conservative side. You could try a fun pattern or bold colour so stand out from the crowd a little.

Lunch of coffee meeting

Since you're meeting someone you already have a mutual connection with, a bit of the pressure is off. Meeting for a coffee or lunch date elicits something you'll be totally comfortable in.

Conclusion

Most networking events these days have a very relaxed dress code, usually because most attendees are going to work after the event, or coming straight from work to the event. Therefore they tend to be wearing what they would wear to work and accountants tend to dress differently to graphic designers who dress differently to people in the engineering trade.

Just remember, in general it’s better to be slightly overdressed, rather than underdressed.