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Dressing the part: When you're the center of attention

Posted by Robin Abrahams  February 7, 2013 07:26 AM

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A good part of etiquette is realizing that it's not all about you.

Except, of course, when it is.

If you are unignorable--either because you are the star attraction, or because you hit someone with a door--you do yourself and everyone else a discourtesy by trying to act as if you aren't there.

So when you are the guest of honor, the keynote speaker, the officiant, the interviewee, the auditioner, here are some tips for dressing the part.

1. Keep a clean silhouette. First and foremost, you want to be visible. You should stand out from your surroundings, not blend in, almost as if you were outlined in a fine black marker. Your outfit can be as form-fitting as Jessica Rabbit's dress or as bulky as David Byrne's Big Suit from "Stop Making Sense," but it should clearly demarcate where you end and everything else begins. Frills, bulging pockets, asymmetric styles, fuzzy fabrics, and rumpled lines make you look blurry. This isn't the time for clever "architectural" or deconstructed clothing.


2. Make strong color choices. You want to attract the eye and hold it steady. Colors should be simple: black and white, neutrals, deep jewel tones, brights. Stay away from pastels and subtle contrasts, and don't wear more than three colors at a time. If you are going to wear a print, make it a bold, quickly "readable" design like plaid, leopard, floral, stripes, or dots. Like keeping a clean silhouette, this will help your audience see you, and keep their attention focused on you rather than trying to figure out if that cunning pattern on your jacket is martini glasses or radioactivity symbols.

3. Think about your angles of exposure. What do you have to do? Walk? Stand on soggy ground? Reach? Bend over? Sit? Sit on a stool? Stand under bright lights? Be photographed from above? Try on your outfit beforehand and check it from all possible angles to make sure you don't give yourself away. When you're on an elevated stage and backlit, a dress that looks fine in the office can make the world your TSA agent. Cameras angled from on high can turn even the most modest V-neck into Valley of the D-36. Tags should be off, tacked-up pockets or vents opened, shoe soles roughed up, and foundation garments firmly in place.

4. Your mother was right: Get your hair out of your face! As much as it pains me to say it, Michelle Obama's bangs are a bad move. The more of your expressive face you can show, the better. If you must have bangs (and I, for one, must) keep them trimmed and orderly during public appearances, not waving about as if by their own volition. Also, keep the hair on the sides of your face from falling forward like great obscuring curtains (this is something that is easy to forget about). Gentlemen with facial hair should keep it trimmed so that it highlights the facial features, rather than obscuring them. And trim your eyebrows, gents, or find someone who will.


(Are you the Archbishop of Canterbury? No? Then do not attempt this look.)

5. Height is good, stability is better. The taller you are, the better people can see you, and the more authoritative you will appear. So wear the highest heels or platforms you can--and no higher. A friend of mine sprained her ankle, really painfully, in front of an audience. You don't want to be that person. 

6. No irrelevant or obscure symbols. No writing or logos on your clothing that people will be squinting to read. Universally understood jewelry like wedding rings, crucifix or Star of David necklaces, or a flag pin are fine, as are symbols or slogans relevant to the event you're attending. Rock that communicator at the con! But not when leading a women's church retreat, where everyone will be distracted wondering if you know how much your brooch looks like a something out of "Star Trek."

7. No distracting jewelry. Jewelry should not have moving parts or sound effects, and it should either be big enough to see clearly, or small enough to ignore. Big beads and brooches are good; so is no jewelry at all. Watch out for bling so blingy it throws refracted light across the room.

8. Women: Makeup is your friend. Cosmetics can make your face look more expressive. Lipstick, in particular, draws attention to your face and helps people focus on what you are saying. Most people lip-read unconsciously to augment their hearing. So make those lips bright, and move them when you e-nun-ci-ate.

9. Men: Women are your friends. If you are giving a talk under stage lights--or under ordinary fluorescent lights on a day when you aren't feeling your best--you can ask a lady friend to help you out discreetly with a bit of powder and paint. A little bronzer can go a long way toward masking the effects of a sleepless night of stage fright. And ladies like helping gentlemen out that way. It makes us feel, for lack of a better term, chivalrous.

Finally ...

10. Remember the coffee study. You've prepared and painted and double-checked all your points, and now you are ready to go. At this point, you stop worrying about your appearance entirely, and focus on the event, and your part in it, and helping other people play their parts well. Once you've done everything you can to prevent a mistake, the only thing to do is stop worrying about making one.

In a favorite psychology experiment of mine, college students were shown video of fellow students who were allegedly running for student government. In the video, the speaker was either well-groomed and well-spoken or a disheveled mutterer; he also either did or did not spill coffee on himself. Guess who was rated the most likeable and competent candidate? Yep: the well-dressed, well-spoken coffee spiller. We like him because we've been there. Once you've done all the preparation you can, you simply have to sail and smile.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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