How To Dress For Credibility
by Joreth Innkeeper © 2009 / updated 2016
How you dress impacts your message almost as much as your message itself does. It is a delicate balance to dress in a way that represents who you are without overshadowing the bigger message of what you are trying to say. You will want to be heard, to be taken seriously, and to have people empathize and identify with you all while not portraying a character that bears no relation to who you are. There are specific outfits one can put together that will give credibility to the speaker, but those outfits may not match your personality or may not be anything that you would actually wear in your real life or have in your closet. I'll give some specific suggestions for outfits and what they represent to "mainstream America", and I'll also give some guidelines on how to work with your own wardrobe no matter what your personal style is. I'll also give some suggestions specifically for TV and photos.
It is unfortunate that so many people still do not see past a physical appearance to the values or skills of the person wearing it. Your message is just as valid and just as valuable as anyone else's, and you may be just as qualified to speak on whatever subject you are speaking. And if you have the time to correct misconceptions, like with co-workers or friends, insisting on your own wardrobe tastes while being a living example of appearances being deceptive or irrelevant is a valid life choice to make. But if you only have 20 minutes in an interview, you will need to make the most of your available time, starting with your appearance.
If you want to reach across whatever your subculture or archetype is, you will have to be the one who bridges the gap. You will have to be the one to moderate your appearance to give your target audience something to empathize with, because it is only after they feel they can identify with you that your message will be heard. Business people still resist believing that a mohawk doesn't interfere with coding or customer service skills. Some people associate a suit with a sense of detachment, arrogance, condescension, lack of compassion and empathy even when that person is speaking about love and relationships. People are more willing to listen to someone in a different age bracket if they appear to understand or share similar tastes or cultural values and ideas. Some people automatically trust a white lab coat while others automatically distrust it before the wearer even opens his mouth. So you may have to make some compromises to your wardrobe based on the target audience to find that connecting point that will allow them to hear you over your appearance.
Do not assume that, because there is no video or photography equipment, that your appearance doesn't matter. Oftentimes, reporters will write their own commentary on your attire and their opinion of you will color how they present the interview.
These are specific archetypical outfits and what they most often mean to a "mainstream" American audience:
The Professional - For masculine attire, this is a suit and tie with jacket. For feminine attire, this is a suit with either slacks or a knee-length skirt, but not a necessarily a tie. A business suit represents respectability and conservatism. It presents power, prestige, and success. A suit is almost always acceptable attire on a talk show or a news show, especially if the target audience is middle class and above, and especially if your message is "Polyamory is found in all walks of life" or "We're just like everyone else" or you are representing the legal or medical professions. The audience will see you in a professional sense, possibly as an "expert". This is great for shows that advertise "hard hitting" journalism or anytime you are specifically invited as an "expert" or "leader". Some women may feel the need to add a little authority to their appearance, especially if they look young or small.
The Semi-Professional - For masculine presentations, this involves slacks and button-up shirts, with or without a sportcoat and tie. For feminine presentations, this involves slacks, knee-length dresses with hose and dress shoes, conservative lines, or suits (slacks or skirts) without the jacket. This style is almost always acceptable on a talk show or news show, where the audience is likely to be other professionals or middle-class and above. This outfit gives about the same amount of credibility as the full Business Suit, but tends to make the wearer appear more approachable. You may still be seen in a professional sense, or an "expert", but the audience may feel more warmly or may identify with you better than with a more formal full suit.
Classic Preppy - For masculine dress, this involves slacks and button up shirts but with the sleeves rolled up or polo shirts, or jeans and a button up shirt. For feminine dress, this involves jeans with a nice blouse or button up shirt, dresses and skirts that do not necessarily need hose, and skirts that are calf length or ankle length (longer than "professional") or that are mid-thigh (shorter than "professional" but not "nightclub" length). Tank tops are included here for feminine dress but not for masculine dress providing the tank top is of a dressy fabric and / or conservative cut. Classic Preppy, also known as Dressy Casual, is a safe bet for almost every medium. It works well for talk shows, for certain news shows that have a more casual atmosphere (local stations or shows where the anchor people banter with each other), documentaries, print interviews, etc. This style can make you feel more comfortable and relaxed than either of the Professional options, which will show through in your presentation, and also allow you to show a little more of your personality, while still presenting you seriously. This style is best for a target audience that is lower-middle class to middle class - the Every Guy audience.
College Student or Software Engineer - Jeans and a t-shirt, casual skirt and top, or casual dress. This outfit works best when the target audience is younger or more involved in pop culture or indie culture. The only talk shows where this would not harm your message are talk shows that they themselves would harm your message, like Jerry Springer. This is acceptable for interviews with college newspapers or Wired magazine, or radio stations. If you are trying to appeal to the younger crowd, the "hip" crowd, the indie crowd, or the coding/programming crowd (i.e. Jonathan Coulton fans, Seattle), the Generic Casual look is OK.
Remember, though, that t-shirt logos and brand names will almost always be blurred out, and any slogans that are even slightly offensive may get blurred out or may negatively impact the audience's perception of you. It is tempting to wear poly-themed slogans or images when in a more casual setting, so try to keep the slogans as inoffensive as possible. A parrot or the heart-infinity symbol are good, non-offensive designs, and a humorous slogan that doesn't reference or imply sex may be acceptable for a target audience that enjoys humor, like a leftist college or independent newspaper or a radio DJ known for humor but not for insulting people, or speaking at a sub-culture gathering like a poly retreat or sci-fi convention.
Hippie / Pagan - This includes a combination of tie-dye clothing, open-toed sandals, baggy or loose-fitting clothing, long flowing skirts, flower-print materials, black & red or black & purple combinations with silver jewelry, cotton or hemp fabrics. This may be who you are, or what you are most comfortable in, but unless the medium is specifically geared towards this culture, this archetype can hurt your message. It doesn't matter that the message is positive, that you're all about peace and love, that your habits are good for the earth & good for humanity, or even if you're politically moderate but just find this style comfortable. This outfit actually reduces credibility no matter how well spoken or articulate you are and even if you manage to keep out any mention of non-poly topics often not taken seriously such as New Age beliefs, spirituality, or opposition to the government. This outfit is best worn when the publication or media is specifically targeted at the same type of people, so sci-fi conventions, pagan gatherings, SCA events, local independent newspapers with a strong leftist leaning, underground radio shows that focus on alternative or indie music, etc.
This outfit is not actually recommended for speaking at poly-specific events. Because of how welcoming this subculture typically is of diversity and alternative views, there is currently an abundance of representatives from this subculture. Polyamorous people who are not from this subculture can feel outnumbered and out of place, even when they are actively welcomed. People who are being introduced to polyamory for the first time may automatically reject the message or the community if they feel it is too closely associated with this or other subcultures. People with more mainstream associations are not used to feeling like outsiders, so if you wish to reach out to them through your public speaking, it helps to present yourself as someone they can identify with. You can save your more regular attire for the days or times when you are not on stage.
Goth / Indie - Lots of black or black & purple, or black & red, unusual fabrics like fishnet, latex, leather, and canvas, lots of silver jewelry, lots of piercings, hardware like grommets, zippers, hooks, safety pins, chains, padlocks, etc., lots of tattoos, hair colors found only in bottles. This archetype has a similar set of drawbacks as the Hippie/Pagan archetype. It is unfortunate that your message may be overshadowed by the audience's preconception of your appearance, and things like tattoos, hair color, and piercings, are not easily changed or covered up for a media appearance. This archetype is best emphasized for media whose target audience is the same - indie publications and radio stations, sub-culture events like art and artistic venues, film festivals, sex-positive conventions, etc. This archetype can be a good opportunity, combined with moderate or conservative modifications to the wardrobe, to bring attention to the "appearances can be deceiving" issue. This can be a chance for you to present yourself as articulate, well-spoken, educated, and knowledgeable that may force your audience to re-evaluate their preconceptions and biases if they are a slightly different subculture. But you will need to take some care to moderate your appearance enough that your audience can find something to identify with or empathize with so that they don't reject you out of hand.
The Fetishist - Black, leather, latex, lace, fishnet, chains, padlocks, collars, spike heels, tall boots, wristbands, or anything that indicates a fetish that even a non-fetishist might recognize as "not normal" like animal ears and tails, costumes, etc. These are acceptable only in two circumstances - if the target audience is other fetishists, such as a BDSM convention, or if your main message is about the cross-over between poly and BDSM and your attire contributes to your point without distracting or alienating your audience. Most mainstream media that encourages or requests this sort of appearance is most likely doing a shock story and you will probably not end up coming across as the protagonist or the sympathetic character. You will need to take extra caution in vetting this production or publication if they claim they want to sympathetically introduce your subculture to their mainstream audience. It is possible that they can portray you correctly, and in such a manner as to elicit a connection with their audience, and that they truly intend to promote diversity and tolerance. But your best bet, like all the other subcultures, is to find a middle ground with your wardrobe, a more moderate version, to represent you. A cable series or a documentary are the most likely mainstream candidates for honestly showcasing your subculture without the shock value or villainizing you, and they have more time to do it in, unlike a news show or newspaper article. A print article may also be fairly safe to dress in this archetype if you have had the chance to talk with the interviewer by phone long enough to create a sympathetic impression that can withstand the introduction to your wardrobe.
Television and Photo Guidelines
Regardless of your Archetype, the following are some general guidelines to avoid technical difficulties with cameras:
Do not wear white. A white, button-up shirt is only acceptable with a jacket and tie. A white blouse is only acceptable with a jacket or sweater. But even in those two circumstances, white is not recommended. Cameras have a much narrower light spectrum than the human eye and cannot adjust for white and pretty much any other color at the same time, so it will always be washed out or too bright. When at all possible, don't wear any white at all, but if you must, make sure it is not the main color and that you have ANY other color next to your face.
Do not wear too much contrast. If you do wear white, don't wear black or other dark colors. Wear all light colors, or all dark colors, or all "warm" colors, or all "cool" colors. Again, the cameras cannot compensate for a wide range of the light spectrum, and the photographer or director will have to compensate in one direction or another. He will either adjust to get detail in the darks or in the lights, but he can't get both, and this will affect how your face looks too.
All black or really dark: All black is tempting ever since we heard that black is "slimming". Dark colors may also help to hide sweating. It's not as problematic as white is, but any color extreme will be difficult for a camera to see clearly. If the background is not also going to be black or dark, this may be acceptable. If you are going to be speaking in front of a black curtain, some other color may be advisable.
Do not wear thin stripes. Really, stripes of any size are not advisable, but thin stripes do one of two things: they either blend together to one color, or they cause these strange zig-zag lines on the screen that sometimes seem to move. It's very distracting and impossible to compensate for on the camera's end.
Do not wear busy patterns. Paisley, plaid, small polka dots, and other busy patterns cause similar optical illusions as the thin stripes and are difficult on the eyes when viewed on a screen.
Skirts: Be careful with skirts and cameras. You can not always tell what the camera sees, and it is often difficult to compensate for the skirt when sitting. Sometimes you will be sitting on bar stools on a stage, sometimes in deep couches, sometimes behind a table where you might forget there is no tablecloth to hide underneath. Short skirts are the most difficult to manage, but even long skirts can get hung up on things without you noticing.
Your best bet is to wear solid, conservative colors in either the light or the dark ranges (but not both at the same time), and to wear at least two colors or one color with an accent color.
So remember, think about your target audience and the message you want to impart, and moderate your wardrobe to match. People listen better when they can identify with the speaker, and clothing on the conservative side has a broader reach. Consider the technical difficulties with cameras in your wardrobe choices. You will look better and you will avoid irritating the person responsible for how you look on screen.
© PMA 2008