Dress to Network — Every Encounter Counts

Tips on how to avoid overdressing or underdressing at everything from job fairs to barbecues


Got a lunch date with a friend who knows a friend who has a friend who is hiring? Did the boss invite you to join him at the Yankees game? Schmoozing at a gallery opening? If your calendar is chock-full of potential networking opportunities, it’s time to make an appointment with your closet as well.

Networking outside the office is your best chance to meet new people beyond your corporate circle who can help promote your career. It’s also a no-man’s land when it comes to the dress code.

Networking is not an interview, and once outside the office, the strict rules of the dress code no longer apply. You’re left on your own to overdress and look like you don’t belong or underdress and look like you’ll never belong.

If you’re not sure what everyone will be wearing, ask around to ensure you won’t be the only one sans suit. When in doubt, business casual is your best bet. But the clothes call could run the gamut from a tuxedo to jeans. Networking outside the office, with more focus on culture and entertainment, is also the perfect opportunity to be more fashion forward and express yourself. This is not a free pass to don your sequined ‘80s jumpsuit, but wear your favorite colors; accessorize; and, most of all, smile.

To help you dress properly for the occasions you might encounter on the job search, here are some common networking scenarios as well as some stylish solutions for men and women facing each event.

Reminder: Dress for success every day, no matter what’s on the agenda — you never know who you will run into on your lunch break!

Networking scenarios include:

A job fair
Attending a job fair is basically like speed interviewing. You should be dressed for the possibility of in-the-moment interview. In others words, wear a suit.

Women: A dress is appropriate as well, when paired with a tailored jacket. Choose shapes that work for your body. Stick to a flattering palette of black, navy, gray or cream. Keep jewelry delicate, but carry a chic tote. (It’s not fashionable to schlep a canvas bag full of resumes!)

Men: You know the rules: nice fit suit, power tie and polished shoes. For more formal interview style tips check out my article ” Lose the ‘Frump Factor,’ Win the Job.”

Lunch with a connected friend
Your old college buddy wants to do lunch and might be bringing a big-time player in your industry along. A business associate wants to get your thoughts over lunch on a new venture he’s considering. Whatever the circumstance, lunch can be a tricky style situation. You want to be dressed to impress, but too formal sends the impression that you are too eager and don’t respect the social aspect of the meeting. In other words, the goal is to play it cool while looking casually sharp. My rule is wear business casual with an emphasis on the casual.

Women: Wear your favorite separates, like a slim pencil skirt and printed blouse. Avoid looking staunch by ditching your jacket, close-toed shoes, and oversized work tote. Opt for pretty heels and a smaller handbag — no resume required!

Men: Keep your look casual in dark jeans or crisp khakis and a button-down in classic color. Wear your suit jacket on top to add the right element of professionalism. No tie required, but a leather belt with a square metal buckle and sleek oxfords will complete your casual business attire.

A cocktail party

Whether you are celebrating with a group of friends or a colleague invites you to a benefit, cocktail parties are the perfect excuse for schmoozing. The great debate in the fashion arena is what defines “cocktail attire.” Short dress? Suit and tie required? While these are all up for discussion, it is best to avoid the risk of looking inappropriate by wearing what has always classically defined cocktail attire: a short, formal dress or a suit and tie. When it comes to your professional image, it is always better to be overdressed than underdressed.

Women: Choose a cocktail dress that is flattering and exposes a tasteful amount of skin. No plunging necklines or bandage dresses, please. Look for a hem that grazes the knee — any longer, and you will look dated; any shorter, and you will look like you belong in a club. Dresses made in chiffon or silk lay nicer than satin, which tends to rumple in all the wrong places. A silhouette that flatters almost any women’s body is sleeveless, with a scoop neck, fitted waist and slightly fuller skirt. Avoid fussy prints and stick to colors that translate well at night: black, gray, shades of red and navy. Wear open-toed heels and your favorite ear or neck sparklers for a finishing touch.

Men: I am not trying to torture you, but you need to wear a suit. Your best suit. Use this opportunity to experiment with colors. In other words, save your black suit for the office. Try suits in shades of gray or tan. Tiny-printed or solid-color ties give a dressier appearance appropriate for a cocktail party. Add a tiny pocket square for a finishing touch.

Drinks with a colleague

Whether grabbing a cocktail with a co-worker or meeting a potential employer for a scotch, your daytime look will require some minor adjustments for the bar. Most people don’t have time to run home and change after work, but a few additional items and tricks will keep your look professional but night-worthy.

Women: Wear a blouse or dress with tasteful embellishments, whether it has a sheen, a beaded design or simply a row of ruffles. This will allow your look to translate easily from the office to the bar. Ditch unwanted layers such as tights, jackets or cardigans. Last, add a fashionable necklace in colorful jewels, and don’t forget to switch your day tote for a sleek clutch. Transformation complete!

Men: Lose your jacket, roll up your sleeves and slightly loosen your tie for a relaxed look. Add a fashionable vest or casual sport coat for a style statement.

For more tricks on day-to-night dressing, see “Style Day to Night — Wardrobe Switch Not Required.

A conference or seminar

A gathering of top industry professionals or a business seminar is a great way to network with names with whom you are probably familiar but have yet to meet face-to-face. With an opportunity to zero in on specific industry influencers, it is key you make a good first impression. While formal attire is not required, you don’t want to be caught shaking hands without a jacket on your arm. Your look for these opportunities should be business casual, with an emphasis on business.

Women: Sick of your skirt-and-blouse office routine? Use this opportunity to wear a flattering shift dress in a rich color. With a hem right around the knee and a minimal neckline, this is the perfect notice-me look. Closed-toed heels and a sleek tote will ensure you look professional. Bring a tailored jacket or cardigan with you in case you get cold, but wearing it is not a must.

Men: See “A job fair.” (Only you don’t need to be wearing your jacket; it’s there just in case.)

Tickets to the big game

What to wear when drinking beer and eating nachos with the boss while watching his favorite sports team? In such a casual environment as a sporting arena, dressing with a business purpose in mind is tricky. The key to looking relaxed yet professional is choosing the right fabrics and showing the appropriate amount of skin. As a rule, the attire should be weekend casual.

Women: Although you might usually grab a tank and shorts for game day, when networking is on the agenda, opt for a little less skin. Try cotton shorts with at least a 5-inch inseam, and tuck in an airy button down in linen or chambray. Wear flat sandals, no flip-flops. Classic aviators and a sporty watch complete your look.

Men: Reach for your weekend pants, like a lightweight chino or classic jeans, but avoid sporting shorts in front of the boss. A cotton polo will keep you cool, but the collar will keep you looking cleaned up. Wear sandals or sleek sneakers, no flip-flops. But feel free to wear your favorite baseball hat!

Note: Basketball games tend to be dressier. (See “Lunch with a connected friend” above.)

Weekend barbecue
Whether headed to a Fourth of July blowout or a more intimate birthday celebration for a colleague, barbecue are a great chance to meet friends of friends and expand your professional network. But unless you are manning the grill, your look needs to send the right message. The attire for a barbecue is weekend casual, with an Americana influence. (No crop tops or wife beaters allowed.)

Women: Try a breezy denim skirt (stay away from minis) and striped knit tank. Make sure the straps are thick enough that you won’t have any bra-strap mishaps. Metallic sandals and a chunky bracelet add just the right amount of polish. A knee-length sundress (avoid halters) is also a stylish but appropriate option.

Men: Khaki or navy shorts (no jean shorts, ever!) are a temperature-friendly option for barbeques. Try a polo shirt in classic color, as T-shirts tend to look sloppy. Avoid wearing a hat so you can make good eye contact. Lastly, brown leather sandals are a more-polished option than flip-flops.

Photos: Courtesy of J. Crew