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What Not to Wear (at a Trade Show)

Are They Really Wearing That?

I'm no fashion expert. The yellow sweater I wear all winter is a dead giveaway. But you don't have to be a member of the fashion police to spot these trade show faux pas. Wear what you want if you're an attendee, but as an exhibitor, you may want to consider these suggestions.


Rule #1 – You want to look your best, so you buy new shoes. Who hasn’t made this mistake? They look great, but by 2 pm on Day 1, all you can think about is how much your feet are throbbing in pain. By Day 3, your blisters have blisters.

Rule #2 – There’s a balance between attractive and professional and casual and comfortable. Find that balance. Even if you have carpet and padding in your booth, you are probably not used to standing for hours and walking on concrete floors.

Rule #3 – Take a little initiative and shine those puppies. Or at least get them shined at the airport while you’re waiting for your plane. It’s cheap even with a generous tip.

Rule #4 – The belt is supposed to match the shoes guys! A brown belt with black shoes? Your mother would be appalled. Socks should match too.

Slacks, Dresses, Blouses, and Skirts

We all pretend we haven’t gained weight. But we have. Don’t wait until 7 am on the first day of the show to discover your clothing doesn’t fit. Unless I missed something important in Biology class, blood flow is important. Buttons and zippers are amazingly strong, but even they will eventually cry “Uncle!” -- often at the most inappropriate times.

Tip: If you feel the need to make “discrete” adjustments more than twice a day, you are probably wearing the wrong size.


Rule #1 – Anything you would wear to the beach, yoga class, house painting, hunting, jogging, fishing, or a play date with your toddler on a rainy day in the park is probably inappropriate. Obviously, there are exceptions, depending on your business model. However, professional does not mean formal. Dress like you are the distant relatives of the wedding couple, not the couple themselves. In general, it’s a good rule to dress at least one step above the trade show attendees.

Rule #2 – Here’s the easy way to decide on logo corporate apparel. If it looks great at a college basketball game, it looks silly at a trade show. I don’t care if it’s the latest high-tech, super-duper sweat-wicking material. There’s nothing wrong with corporate apparel. Most companies will have their employees in shirts, sweaters, blouses, etc. with the company logo but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. Tasteful, subtle, and clever will attract more attention than garish.

Rule #3 – When you shop for corporate apparel, resist the urge to go cheap. I know. You are only wearing it for three days so why pay more? Because cheap clothing looks cheap and it looks even cheaper when embroidered. Plus, you want your staff to be comfortable and confident. Nothing undermines that more than ill-fitting, tight, baggy, or translucent clothing.

Rule #4 – Men’s clothing is designed for men. Women’s clothing is designed for women. Don’t buy men’s polo shirts, t-shirts, sweaters, and vests and give them to women. They will hate you for that and will refuse to wear it. I know. I made that mistake and am still hearing about it.

There are exceptions to every rule, but in general, just remember there’s a reason why Fortune 500 executives don’t wear golf shirts and skinny jeans to negotiate multi-million-dollar deals.


Do you remember the dirt cloud that surrounded Pigpen in the Peanuts cartoon? We all know people who douse themselves in a scent cloud. Scents should be alluring or soothing. They are less effective when they elicit migraines or seizures in others.

Tip: Some advice on how much to apply – use no more than one free sample from the magazine.


Wear what you want. There are no rules, just a word of caution. Expensive, heirloom, or bulky jewelry may not be the best choice. Trade shows are all about handshakes, hugs, and distractions, all in an unfamiliar location where jewelry can get lost, damaged, or stolen.


Finally, whether male or female, pockets are a must. As an exhibitor, you need pockets for business cards, pens, trinkets, breath mints, etc. I’m not talking about a safari jacket with 37 pockets, but wearing a jacket, slacks or skirt with pockets will make your life much easier in the booth.

My sincere thanks to the fashion forward exhibitors at EXHIBITORLIVE for their suggestions, some of which cannot be printed without an R or X rating. Suffice to say that the term “cleavage" was a contentious topic between men and women. What did we miss? We'd love to hear your “What Not to Wear” suggestions and comments.

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Article Author:

Mel White, CEI

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