How to Dress for Respect for Most Any Situation

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Woman looking at a black dress in her closet with the words tips on what to wear when to show respect

Clothing may be a form of art, a way to express ourselves, and just a way to stay warm and not get arrested when out and about. But clothing is about much more than that. Why do we wear a suit for an interview, black for a funeral, a dress for a wedding, conservative clothing in a house of worship? We do it out of respect. We should do it out of respect. Respect for religion, culture, loved ones, and humankind in general. Over the years, society has become more relaxed with fashion which is great especially for women, but it makes it more difficult to know what to wear to show respect for a person or situation.  True style comes not from what you wear but how you wear it.

A stylish woman, regardless of her choices in fashion, understands fashion etiquette adheres to it. A stylish woman respects herself and respects the world around her. She doesn’t litter, she doesn’t cut people off on the highway, and she would never upstage a bride or belittle a cultural tradition. Below I share tips on how to dress for respect.

How to Dress for Respect

How to Dress for Respect as a Wedding Guest

Weddings are times of celebration. A couple has decided to proclaim to their family, friends, loved ones, the world, and possibly their religion that they wish to unite in love. The couple will decide how they want their day to be celebrated, and through subtle clues (or a call to the family or wedding party member) you will know how to dress. A few common clues for respectful attire:

  • After 5:00 PM. The general fashion etiquette is that if the ceremony starts after 5:00, the attire is semi-formal to formal. A safe bet is a dress around knee-length, in a classic fabric like crepe, silk or chiffon. These days most colors, even black, are acceptable to be worn to a wedding. As a sign of respect, bright red and white should not be chosen (dark reds like burgundy and patterns that incorporate these colors are fine). Your dress should fit your personal style, but not too sexy or revealing. This is the bride’s day. No one should look better or more… eye-catching than she. Whether the bride chooses a classic white gown or a bright red mini, this does not give you the right to dress in a matching way. Like the flowers and the linens, you are an accessory on the wedding day, you make the day better, you don’t MAKE the day.
  • Traditional invitations. Ivory paper, black script, several enveloped, professional calligraphy for your address. These invitation clues also help you to assume the event is more formal, and also more classic. Leave your hot pink snakeskin stilettos and bandage dress at home. Show respect to those who are paying for your filet mignon and champagne toast – be appropriate. Dress in the manner mentioned above.
  • A theme wedding. Your cousin is marrying at the beach and wants everyone in tropical attire. You hate themes, but you love your cousin. Do not show up in a black pantsuit. This is not respecting the event or the couple. If you do not own a single piece of clothing in a Hawaiian print, consider a cheerful color of dress and maybe a flower behind your ear.
  • The ceremony is in a house of worship. Do your research. How religious is the couple? Is a head covering expected? How do they feel about women in pants? Again, this is not your day. If your friend is an orthodox Jew, do not wear a halter top and cigarette pants. It is possible to be true to yourself, and be respectful to the situation.
  • The casual wedding. So the ceremony is at the courthouse and the reception is a backyard barbecue? That doesn’t mean it’s okay to wear a sweatshirt and jeans. Clothing shows your feelings about a situation. Wear flat shoes so you don’t sink into the grass. In place of jeans, consider capris or nice pants or a casual dress. It is possible to be comfortable, casual, and still respectful of the couple and their union.

How to Dress for Respect at Work

You may be an administrative assistant, a paper pusher, or a CEO. No matter your position, and no matter your feelings about the job or the company, you should always dress to show respect to the firm and the role. Business casual does not mean faded ill-fitting sweaters, jeans, and sneakers. A casual environment does not mean you can waltz around in string tanks and flip flops. This look gives off the impression that you don’t care about your job, or yourself. I am not saying that you should wear a suit every day, but think carefully about the image you are portraying in your work environment.

  • Business casual. This article shares what attire is considered business casual. Business casual is not a license for slovenliness. It is the ability to still look polished, respectful while being comfortable.
  • Casual Fridays. A bit more casual than traditional business casual, this again is not a license for dressing like a bum. This look does not include college sweatshirts, beat-up comfy jeans, sneakers, or tee shirts with pictures or logos on them. Hair should be styled and face should be clean and as made up as you do on a regular day.
  • Client meetings. Research your client. Are they a creative computer company or a conservative government agency? Dress the part. If you are unsure, it is always to dress more conservatively. For first meetings, it is safe to wear a suit. Feel free to show your sense of style in the color of your shirt or the style of your jewelry. Again, if you are unsure be safe and wear closed-toe shoes. IF your client is more liberal or creative, consider peep-toe or fun shoes, and creative colors in the suit. For more casual meetings, still dress better than you usually do in the office. Tailored shirts, knee-length skirts, dresses, and lined trousers give a look that says you care for and respect your client.
  • Holiday parties. The liquor is flowing and the dance floor is packed with cubicle mates. This does not mean you can act as you do on a night out with the girls. Your dress should be festive but not provocative. Keep the cleavage and the clinginess to a minimum, your hair and makeup tasteful, and your alcohol consumption to a reasonable level (I have a three-drink maximum at these events so I don’t wake up the next day with regrets and the worry of having a job come Monday).
  • Job interviews. Now is the time to polish those shoes, dry clean your best suit, tweeze those brows, and press your shirt. You should look your absolute best. Better conservative than not. If it is a creative company, you may add flashes of color in a nice jacket, a scarf or blouse. If you are unsure, it is best to stay with a neutral subtle color for the suit (navy, black, gray, dark brown or dark green) and a complimentary but not shocking color for your shirt. Shoes should be closed-toed, makeup and hair should be subtle and classic. Nails should be trimmed, clean, and nude or a light color. Make sure your bag is in good condition – borrow one if you have to. This meeting is all about your first impression.

How to Dress for Respect at a Bridal or Baby Shower

It’s your best friend, your neighbor, your sister. The two of you are thick as thieves and spend many nights hanging out in sweats, eating popcorn, and watching reruns of Sex and the City. That doesn’t mean you should dress the same for her party. Be the event at a restaurant, a hall or her living room, this is a celebration of a momentous occasion in your friend’s life and should be honored as such. Switch the shorts for capris, sweatshirts for twinsets, sneaks for shoes, and jeans for trousers. No need to wear a dress and hose, but look clean, look festive and look respectful. A good rule of thumb is to wear only that you would wear to a nice restaurant or a business casual work environment.

What to Wear to Churches, Synagogues, and Other Houses of Worship

I grew up attending a very laid-back and liberal church. Members of the congregation would show up in jeans and sweats, girls in Sunday School with me would often arrive in the flannel pajama pants they wore to bed the night before. My mother ensured that we were always dressed nicely to show respect to the minister who worked so hard on his sermon, to the choir who practiced all week for their performance, to the congregation who cares about us, and to the religion as a whole. We wore sweaters and pants in the winter, casual skirts and capris with polos and shells in the summer. On religious holidays, we always wore dresses, my father wore a suit and when we were little, my mom would curl our hair. Dressing in this manner made the weekly family tradition of church and then lunch become a special occasion, and a tradition to be respected.

My father was one religion, my mother another, they converted to a third for a happy medium. I grew up attending religious services and special events for a multitude of religions and levels of worship. In some synagogues, I had to cover my head, elbows, and shoulders and only wear skirts. In some churches, I could wear a spaghetti strap tank and sandals. I always asked first what was acceptable so that I dressed in a manner that respected the attendees of that house of worship. More than any other event in your life, attending a house of worship is not about you and creating a lasting impression. Like anywhere else in life, it is a fashion show where people will judge what you wear, but it not the place to make a flashy statement in dress, hair, makeup or amount of skin exposed.

How to Dress for Dates and at Dinners

  • Dinner at a nice restaurant. So you saw a celebrity come out of Nobu in jeans and a Jack Daniel’s Whiskey tee shirt. That does not mean it is acceptable. Most restaurants have websites where they either mention the dress code or show photographs of guests dining there. Show respect to the establishment and show respect to yourself and dress appropriately. If you are unsure where you are going, you can’t go wrong in black trousers, black closed-toed shoes, and a merino sweater or tailored shirt and pearls. This simple outfit will work at Applebee’s or a five-star establishment in the city. As with most situations, it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.
  • First date. So you don’t know the date well, and you don’t know where you are going. You want to make a great first impression, you want to look good and you want your date to ask you out again. This does not mean pull out the pleather mini and thigh-high boots. Your date may find you attractive in that look, but may not be thinking you want more than a good time. You can look feminine and alluring without showing every part of your body. A skirt that hits above the knees with a sweater and pumps can look sexy while having class. A pair of black pants with a dressy top and heels is nice if you believe you may be going to a nice restaurant and dancing afterwards. For a casual meeting, consider nice jeans (clean, darker, no holes, covers the rear, not too tight) with a camisole and cute jacket or blazer. For summer you can’t go wrong with a sundress or chino skirt and fitted top with sandals.
  • Night out with friends. Yes you plan on having a good time, and you ladies may be out on the prowl for dates, but that does not mean you need to dress like you belong in a Red Light district. You can look sexy and flirtatious without exposing all of your skin. Wear a drapey halter top with black tailored trousers. Skinny jeans can be balanced out with a kimono-style or a blouson-sleeved silk top. A low-cut top looks stylish, not sleazy if not skin tight everywhere else and with full-length pants. A short skirt is sassy with tall boots and tights. As with any other situation, dress in a manner that shows that you respect yourself. Looking sleazy, messy or tacky gives off the impression that you don’t think too much of yourself. If you are giving off that manner, what type of partner are you going to attract?

How to Dress for Respect on Travel

Planes are not an enjoyable place to be, especially for an extended period of time. I am the first to say dress and pack for the occasion. By all means, dress comfortably. Comfort does not equal sloppiness.

  1. Pack the essentials. Do you have dry skin? TSA now allows containers 4 ounces and less in carry-on luggage, as long as in a Ziploc baggie. Take your tinted lip balm, your moisturizer, your contact lens rewetting drops. Pack a brush or comb – plane hair can cause static and frizziness. Consider an elastic to pull your hair in a low ponytail if you get bedhead from sleeping in your seat.
  2. Carry your creature comforts. I never travel without a pashmina. I wrap it around my neck like a scarf, then once on the plane, I use it for a blanket or roll it up for a neck or lower-back bolster. My friend has an inflatable neck pillow. Deflated it is small enough to fit in her purse, but it reduced neck strain on long flights, leaving her looking rested and refreshed after the most turbulent red-eye.
  3. Dress for comfort, and your destination. It may be balmy in Los Angeles, but it’s 27 degrees in Indiana. Have layers so you feel great no matter where you land and no matter the climate on the plane. Have comfortable layers with stretch. I always wear either my stretchy denim trousers or a great pair of heavy black Ponte de Roma knit bootcut trousers when I fly. Both have waistbands with give and do not wrinkle, even if I sit for six hours straight. On top, I wear a shell in a soft knit and a sweater or jacket over it. If it is hot, I can remove a layer but still look polished and together. As for shoes, wear ones that slip on and off easily. This is nice for long flights to maintain good circulation, and it will prove far simpler when going through airport security checkpoints.
  4. Look better than you feel. How are you going to be upgraded to First Class, treated with respect by a flight attendant, or assisted by airport staff if you look as though you just crawled out of a garbage can? It may be a long flight, an early departure time, or the end of a horrific trip. That does not give you the right to go without brushing your hair, washing your face or donning appropriate clothing. Bedtime attire is not acceptable for planes, and flights do not give you a license to wear gaudy neon-colored velour tracksuits. You will feel better and be treated better if you dress with respect – polished knits, comfortable sweaters, and real shoes (that means no rubber flops, Crocs or bunny slippers!).
A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. I agree. I hate to think someone’s case would be determined by attire, but judges are humans. Also, if you can’t take the effort to dress appropriately for a court hearing, someone may assume you also won’t put forth the effort to properly rear a child/adhere to probation/make best use of a lesser sentence, etc. We live in a visual society.

  2.  Allie,
    I was thinking about your post on respect while I was riding the bus to work. One of the places we pass is the county courthouse. Even though my county is very laid back when it comes to clothes, the courthouse is one place people at least make an attempt to look decent. That’s especially true for people who have to appear before the judge.

    I was taken aback to see a young woman dressed in sweat pants with text silk screened the full length of one leg, a cami with her bra straps showing, hair in a messy ponytail, and fuzzy slippers. Judges are supposed to be impartial, but they are human and affected to some degree by a person’s appearance. Many of the cases heard in this court house are custody battles. I don’t know for certain why she was at court, but a custody hearing is a likely guess. Her apparel could be interpreted as disrespectful of the court, the judge, the proceedings, herself, and her role as a mother. It seems to me that she is hurting her chances of being considered in the best possible light.


  3. Just a random comment- I agree with most of what you say in your blog but one thing you have mentioned many times is just not right!

    Never, ever, EVER wear black to a wedding. Black is for funerals and there are plenty of people, especially older relatives, who will see you wearing black at a wedding as a sign of silent condemnation. I just spent a lovely time as a bridesmaid at a wedding calming down a large portion of elderly grandmothers and uncles on both sides because almost everyone wore black. My friend who got married is a goth, but what the relatives saw was a sea of silent disapproval of the union.

    It was a fantastic wedding and everyone was happy to see it happen, but let’s just say that little bit of stress could have been avoided by people not wearing black at a wedding.

    This may be a cultural thing, but it’s worth noting!

  4. As always, another insightful post. Hope you’re feeling better!

    Your “girls’ night out” assessment is spot on. I strongly believe that a woman should leave something to the imagination. My rule is only one skimpy item at a time–wearing a itty bitty top with an itty bitty skirt/shorts for a night out is tacky.

  5. Right on. How you are dressed speaks volumes about your respect or lack thereof. Our society as a whole seems to think respect for others is an out-dated idea.

  6. great comments- goes for men as well…I try to tell my husband it is not all about his comfort- it is respect for the occaision, person, etc. I wish you could post more often- you have great ideas- very mature for someone who at least appears pretty young.

  7. Yay, a new post, and such good advice! Thanks so much for all the good thoughts you provide.

    Hope you’re feeling better, and are getting enough “down time.” 🙂

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