A Job Seeker’s Dress Code: What to Wear to a Job Fair

Deciding what to wear to a job fair usually takes a back seat to other tasks like resume writing and researching employers. Some people may put little thought into their outfits at all. Neglecting to plan your outfit ahead of time could have a negative impact on your job search. It may seem like a small detail, but it isn’t something that should be left until the last minute.

The biggest challenge to dressing for a job fair can be knowing where to start. For example, do you need to wear a whole suit? Is it risky to show your arms? While there aren’t exactly hard and fast rules for fashion, the  good news is there are some best practices that people tend to fall back on. Below, you can find these guidelines for what to wear to a job fair. Once you understand the basics, putting together an outfit that speaks to you should be a breeze.

Choose What To Wear To A Job Fair Carefully

The goal of most workplace clothing guidelines is to create a professional environment without distraction. Looking cleaned up and modern gives off an air of being put together and up to date. The more any outfit deviates from “the norm”, the more likely people will be thinking about clothes rather than the task at hand.

Another unspoken reason to dress with the code is proving you know how to “play the game.” Most industries have standard practices and insider knowledge. Something as simple but forward facing as your clothes gives people a reason to think you know how to play along. On the flip side, dressing too independently or loudly can suggest you’re not a team player. When you’re meeting a lot of people quickly, like at a job fair, first impressions matter. You should look like you put consideration into your outfit.

There’s something to be said for being yourself, especially for certain people and industries, and that will be discussed below. The practical truth, though, is that when it comes to what to wear to a job fair, dressing conservatively is dressing safely. And to do that, there are some helpful guidelines to consider.

General Rules For What To Wear To A Job Fair

  • The safest guideline is: Ask the job fair coordinators what the dress code is! Failing that, if you can, go to your college or alumnus’ career development office and ask their advice. Otherwise, consider how your industry dresses for a normal workday, and go a step above that. For instance, if your industry dresses shirt and tie to work, put on a jacket.
  • Focus on muted, neutral, and darker colors for outermost clothes like jackets, blazers, and suit pants. Think black, navy, brown/tan, gray. Undershirts and the like can go one of two ways: Lighter, often white, off white, or beige, with a simple pattern tie for men; or with a simple design and no tie. Blouses are usually lighter than their accompanying pants or skirt.
  • Matching your outfit to your current skin tone and hair color is always appreciated. If you’re blonde, focus on browns and grays over blacks, for instance.
  • Make sure all your clothes coordinate– that includes your socks and shoes.
  • Simple patterns are acceptable, and can even be a smart move, for shirts and skirts. Patterns hide wrinkles, lint, and stains. So if your cat brushes against you as you’re running out the door, or your pre job fair coffee spills a little, you’re not in trouble.
  • Modern and ageless is safer than classic. Wearing outdated hairstyles or clothes can make it seem you’re behind the times or inflexible.
  • If you can, wear clothing with a collar. It implies authority.
  • Consider the weather. Your outfit shouldn’t be heavier if it’s going to rain, but you should bring an umbrella or coat that doesn’t stand out too much.
  • Take the time to make sure all your clothes fit. Saggy fits look sloppy, but tight clothes look impractical and potentially risque.

Head And Face

As we said above, you want your haircut to look modern. Show you’re keeping up with societal norms when considering what to wear to a job fair. Beyond that, the most important thing is that you look clean. Hair and beards don’t have to be short, but they do have to be neatly kept and well groomed. And no hats!

You may not think of it, but smell matters. That said, avoid perfumes, colognes, or scented deodorants. Besides being potentially distracting, more people have perfume allergies than you’d think. With a big day ahead of you, make sure to brush your teeth and keep your breath fresh.

As far as makeup and accessories go, stay simple and minimal. Do not use makeup to stand out, rather use it to compliment your look and outfit. The safest jewelry are earrings and simple necklaces on women; avoid clunky and noisy bracelets or anything else that can be distracting.

Top And Torso

For men, the absolute safest bet for what to wear to a job fair is a suit. It’s generally better to be overdressed than under, after all. That said, in a lot of situations, a jacket or blazer will do the job just fine. As we said above, put darker colors over lighter ones, and decide between a plain shirt and tie or a shirt with a simple pattern. Men’s arms are usually covered, which means don’t roll up sleeves. Nails should be trimmed. A nice watch is a great addition to your formal outfit.

Women, however, don’t have as cut and dry rules for what to wear to a job fair. A suit or blazer are, again, safe bets, but a nice blouse is also valid. Dresses depend on the dress and industry. Arms don’t absolutely have to be covered, but should probably be, at least partially. A blouse shouldn’t have a pattern if its accompanying pants or skirt have one. Nails can be painted, but usually one, darker color, and trimmed short. A bracelet or watch can be fine, but nothing fancy. As with men, hang up coats at the door.

Legs And Feet

In most situations, you should have a belt, and your top should be tucked in. Your bottoms should match your outermost layer on top. Pants, socks/hosiery, and shoes don’t have to all match, but they must coordinate. Socks and hosiery should usually be darker than the bottoms. Shoes should be walkable when it comes to what to wear to a job fair; nothing that crushes your toes. You’ll be walking around a fair amount in a job fair.

Men, skip jeans, and try to go a step above khakis; they’ll work, but some consider them not much better than jeans. Shoes should be dark and coordinated, nice but walkable, so no tennis shoes or athletic socks.

Women, meanwhile, usually go with suit pants or a skirt. Skirts should cover your thighs when you sit and reach your knees, or just above, when standing. The same goes for dresses. Hosiery should be plain and sheer. When it comes to shoes, choose pumps with small heels, or boots. And again, they should coordinate and not stand out from the outfit too much.

Bags

You may not have thought about bringing a bag when you thought about what to wear to a job fair, but you should. You’ll likely have resumes to hand out and materials to collect. A portfolio is a smart solution, but small briefcases or messenger bags for men, and shoulder bags or purses for women, work too. Women’s bags should look, and be, practical.

Leather is a good material for any of these; even if it doesn’t match your outfit, it won’t clash. Branding shouldn’t be too obvious or tacky. Beyond that, it’s largely up to your opinions. Investing in a small leather bag or portfolio may be the best move. Luckily, many stores, offices, or even career development centers offer portfolios.

A Note On Individuality

Not everyone is going to feel comfortable following set rules about what to wear to a job fair. People with extensive body modifications such as tattoos and piercings may have difficulty covering or removing all of their art to fit these guidelines. Nonbinary people may not want to, or feel like they can, present as simply “man” or “woman” like this article describes. And there are plenty of other reasons someone may feel stifled or silenced by more conservative dress codes.

Luckily, these rules are not hard and fast. The industry, the company, and even the job can all give you more leeway in self-presentation. If you can’t see yourself following these guidelines, research or ask which companies and positions within your industry are more lenient.

That said, one thing independent dressers can still do is dress WELL, if not typically. Dress like you coordinated your outfit for a nicer event. As an example: An artist should dress like they’re presenting their work at an art show, rather than fresh out of the studio. Even if you aren’t someone who fits these guidelines, you can still show respect for the event, and the “game” many have to play in their jobs. Knowing what to wear to a job fair is mostly about knowing how to fit in, or at least how to look like you care. With the above advice, you should be more than ready to do just that.