How you dress for a first impression — whether it’s for a networking event or a drink with colleagues — can make all the difference in the world. But what’s your best strategy for making an appearance? This How to Dress for a Networking Event guide should help.
It’s game time. You’ve been invited. It’s an opportunity to present yourself in the best light possible, and network with the best minds in the business — or any other business, for that matter. It could be a meeting with your colleague, or the CEO of a fast growing company. It could be over drinks, a weekday lunch, or your conventional cocktail party networking event. Either way, make no mistake about it: you are showing up for a reason. To connect with people. To nurture relationships. To grow and evolve. You are obviously a go-getter, taking initiative by the horns and riding with it. All very pertinent qualities for that networking event. But there is one element that cannot be overlooked: How you show up — the way you are dressed. It contributes heavily toward creating a positive first impression.
As AJ and Jordan have repeatedly pointed out, your first impression is your gateway. It opens that metaphorical door and allows you step right through into the world of opportunity. Body language and the way in which you communicate play a significant role. Being well-dressed packages those qualities in an elegant metaphorical box and leaves your audience both impressed and feeling secure in your company.
It is this latter point that is of profound importance. Harvard Business School social psychologist and Art of Charm podcast guest Amy Cuddy, who has studied first impressions, points to two factors that people are inherently trying to assess when they first meet you.
- Can I trust this person? (implies warmth)
- Can I respect this person? (implies competence)
Cuddy points out that while most people believe competence is the factor of greater importance, how people evaluate your level of trustworthiness is what really counts. As she says: “From an evolutionary perspective, it is more crucial to our survival to know whether a person deserves our trust.” Given that we were often in flight or fight mode during our development as a species, it makes sense for us to trust security over competence (e.g., in the stone age, trusting someone enough to know they wouldn’t slaughter you in your sleep was more important than knowing they could build a fire).
So there you have it. Dressing well reinforces people’s trust in us — a factor with an importance rooted in our very evolution.
With that firmly established, let’s look at how to dress for different networking events — for both women and men. But before we get into each specific type of event, an understanding of color and pattern theory can ensure that we do not look visually jarring when we are meeting someone.
When matching colors, a color wheel serves as a great foundation. Color wheels show us how to harmonize color, or create a sense of balance with the colors we are wearing. To that effect, color wheels are largely divided into two main areas: warmer colors (red, orange, and yellow) and cooler colors (blue, purple, and green). Using this, we can create simpler color schemes that don’t involve a contrast of warm and cool colors (monochromatic, neutral, and similar color schemes), or more complicated color schemes that involve pairing contrasting colors (triadic, complementary color schemes).
Neutral Color Scheme: Typically involves pairing one colored item (warm or cool color) with a neutral item, such as a white shirt. Hence, if you are not accessorizing with any color, a navy jacket or blazer with a white shirt will provide just enough for an elegant look. Pairing two neutral colors such as grey and white or brown and white can work if you are accessorizing with additional color. If you are not accessorizing, you risk looking drab and without a sense of personality. Who would want that at your upcoming networking event?
Monochromatic Color Scheme: A monochromatic color scheme, as the name implies (‘mono’ being singular), involves wearing one color with multiple variants. An example of this would be pairing a navy tie with a light blue shirt, or wearing darker burgundy pants with a light pink blouse. A monochromatic color scheme creates a sense of familiarity to the observer’s eye, as the colors blend well together while creating visual interest at the same time. A monochromatic color scheme is a simple way to dress elegantly without being concerned about how to mix and match colors.
Similar Color Scheme: A similar color scheme entails pairing colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. An example would include pairing a light green shirt with navy pants. Note that using a lighter variant of one color and a darker variant of another (e.g., navy is a darker variant of blue, while light green is a lighter variation). A similar color scheme creates a look that is easy on the eyes as both colors are part of the same side of the color wheel. In the instance above, this includes pairing two cooler colors.
Triadic Color Scheme: This involves dressing in a bolder capacity — pairing a warmer color against a cooler color. With men, this is often seen with a red or burgundy (darker variant) tie against a blue shirt. A triadic color scheme creates harmony in the truest sense as a warmer color is being balanced by a cooler color.
Complementary Color Scheme: This is the boldest of color schemes and involves pairing colors that are diametrically opposed to each other on the color wheel. Examples include pairing orange with blue. While complementary color schemes are fun and bold, they should be avoided for networking events.
The Dark Knot Tip:
When looking to match colors for your next networking event, a monochromatic color scheme is the easiest way to look elegant and presentable without having to worry about color coordination. For those of you looking to dress bolder, a similar and triadic color scheme are great ways to introduce color coordination. Please note that complementary color schemes should be avoided for networking events as colors can often seem jarring. We want to infuse our clothing with our personality, but some restraint should be exercised!
When dressing for a networking event, and especially if the dress code is business casual (please see below), you want to keep pattern matching to a minimum
- Avoid wearing striped pants with your dress shirt — This creates the impression that you are wearing the pants of a broken suit. This is signaling confusion, as you are using the bottom half of a suit with a dress shirt, clashing formalwear with business attire
- If your pants have a pattern, go with a solid shirt or blouse — this helps prevent a visually jarring effect.
- For men, when pairing tie patterns to your suits and shirts, the most critical component is pattern proportion — therefore, even though patterns may be similar, such as a striped tie against a striped shirt, what is of paramount importance is that the spacing between the patterns is different (e.g., a wider striped tie pattern against a narrower striped shirt).
Dressing up Based on Type of Networking Event
Attending a job fair can essentially be construed as speed interviewing. Prospective employers could be meeting hundreds of interested candidates all day, and so it’s imperative that you look the part to stand out and really make an impression. You do, after all, want to gain their trust, don’t you? For both women and men, you are encouraged to wear a suit.
Women: A suit or dress, when paired with a tailored jacket, is appropriate. Choose shapes that work for you, and wear flattering palettes such as navy, black, or grey. Keep your jewelry delicate to add a hint of sophistication, and try carrying an elegant tote for that stash of corporate information you will be storing away!
Men: Wear a well-fitted suit. Stick to classic colors such as a solid or subtly striped navy or charcoal grey suit. Conservative shirts such as a solid white or light blue will work fantastically. Pairing ties using either a monochromatic scheme (elegant, understated) or triadic color scheme (elegant, powerful) will put you in good standing. If you really want to stand out, opt for a solid white pocket square and wear it with a presidential fold, with just the squared edges showing at the top. Remember, you are trying to gain a prospective employer’s trust. Dressing well but with humility will take you a long way.
If you are skinnier and are trying to accentuate your perceived width, try opting for a medium spread collar shirt and wear a half or full Windsor knot. If you are on the bulkier side, a striped suit and / or a narrower collar with a four-in-hand knot will provide a slimming down effect.
Your good friend or former colleague is intent on introducing you to an industry heavyweight or someone who can help take your career / business in the right direction. Perfect! We are all waiting to shine when such opportunities arrive. However, exercising discretion in situations like this with respect to dress can often seem difficult, as we don’t want to step over boundaries and dress in an overtly formal manner. Neither do we want to come across as casual and uninterested.
Your best bet for a networking lunch is to dress in business casual attire. Business casual is that range of attire that often throws off the most amount of confusion. It ranges from wearing khakis and a polo shirt to wearing pants, a dress shirt, and a jacket. For the purpose of networking, we suggest leaning toward the formal end of business casual.
Women: Opt for your favorite separates, like a slim pencil skirt and a printed blouse. Avoid looking overtly formal by leaving out your jacket and close-toed shoes. Open heels and a smaller handbag will perfectly suffice!
Men: Navy chinos or pants and a dress shirt will do the trick. As mentioned in our pattern-matching principles above, opt for a patterned shirt and solid pants, or vice versa. However, do not opt for two patterns. Pairing this with a patterned or solid blazer (and a pocket square for added dash!) will work wonders and will have you looking just professional enough for a networking lunch.
Industry Presentations and Conferences
With large industry presentations and conferences often attracting your niche’s movers and shakers, these are great opportunities to network and make a strong first impression. As such, dressing to the nines will be in your best interest! Whether you are dressing business casual or formally, ensuring that attention to detail is at its strongest will ensure that you make that killer first impression!
Women: Looking to add variety to your corporate attire? Use this as an opportunity to wear a shift dress that is hemmed at the knee. A sleek dress with a minimal neckline will have you looking elegant and will most definitely draw attention. Opt for heels and a sleek tote to complete the look.
Men: Business attire or business formal is the way to go. If you are strutting a suit, opt for a navy or charcoal grey solid, pinstriped or plaid suit, and a blue, red, or burgundy tie. Wearing conventional colors will allow you to build trust. As with the case of job fairs, if you are skinny and looking to broaden your perceived width, opt for a semi spread or spread collar shirt and a half or full Windsor tie. If you are bulkier in nature, a narrow collared shirt and a four-in-hand tie will provide a slimming effect.
If you are opting for business casual attire, navy or charcoal grey pants and a blue blazer will have you looking professional. While a tie is not necessary with business casual, a pocket square will provide you with extra panache and a sense of flair!
Regarding formal attire, a navy or charcoal grey suit will have you standing out. Opt for a geometric (repeating pattern) or a solid tie to make an impression.Cocktail Function
Cocktail functions are a fantastic way to network. What exactly constitutes cocktail attire? Think a short, knee hem dress for women and a formal, full-on suit for men. It is in your best interest to dress the part at a cocktail party!
Women: Choose a dress that is flattering and exposes a sophisticated amount of skin. A dress that is hemmed at the knee will allow you to look tasteful and elegant. Dresses made from chiffon or silk tend to lay nicer than satin, which tends to crumple. A silhouette that is flattering irrespective of body type is sleeveless, with a fitted waist and slightly fuller skirt. Opt for solid colors that are clean, minimalistic, and elegant, with open-toed heels and a dash of jewelry to make that ultimate impression!
Men: Pick your best damned suit out of your wardrobe! Especially a tailored one if you have one. A solid, subtly striped or plaid suit with a well-fitted dress shirt and complementary accessories will have you looking the part. Avoid the dull stripes of the office and opt for a classy solid, geometric (repeating patterns), or printed silk tie. Geometric patterns are ideal for networking events as they show off a sense of style and sophistication.
Printed silk ties, which are often presented in different themes such as sporting (golf clubs, tennis racquets, etc.) or lifestyle (beach, travel, etc.) can help draw attention to the tie with their vibrant color schemes, in addition to being a great conversation starter regarding your interests. And hey, it’s all about creating a strong impression while having an authentic, engaging conversation with the people we meet!
Drinks with a Colleague
Whether you are grabbing cocktails with a co-worker or meeting a potential employer at the swankiest whiskey lounge in town, your daytime look will require some minor adjustments. While most of you won’t have time to go home and refresh your look, a few tweaks to how you approach your attire for the day can make your transition into the evening seamless.
Women: Wear a blouse or dress with some sophisticated embellishment that will allow you to transition smoothly into the evening. Add a fashionable accessory such as a necklace come evening time and you’ll look the part.
Men: You can remain dapper at drinks (irrespective of whether or not you remove your necktie) and add in your pocket square that you didn’t wear to the office but carried with you. Alternatively, you can roll your sleeves up, take off your jacket, and loosen up that tie. Either way, you will look professional and dapper without being overtly dressed.
Tickets to the Game
No, we’re not necessarily talking about Buckeye State vs. Wolverines, but we are talking about a game. Any given game. And chances are, if it has presented itself as a networking opportunity, it’s most likely taking place in a corporate box. How are you going to present yourself in the best light possible? Ditch the face paint, avoid exposing too much skin, dress well, and still have a damned good time.
Women: Opt for a pair of jeans or cotton shorts with a decent inseam, and a linen button-down if you can. Replace those flip-flops with sandals, and you’ll look relaxed enough without having dropped all filters.
Men: Khakis or chinos with a polo shirt will do the trick. If you want to dress a bit more dapper, a dress shirt with your chinos or khakis will have you looking elegantly dressed, yet casual enough to enjoy in-game banter!
And that’s a wrap for this one! I hope that you have enjoyed reading this as much as I had writing it.
The Dark Knot carries handmade men’s accessories including silk ties, pocket squares, and lapel flowers. Each of its items come presented in an elegant black gift box along with a card with recommendations for matching attire. The Dark Knot is happy to offer all Art of Charm readers a 25% discount off any order size; just use the discount code AOC25 at checkout!
Lead image by MK Wyman