Dressing for Success–Male Tech Writer Edition

I’ll preface some of this so I don’t come across as a killjoy: I hate wearing neckties. My most comfortable clothing combination is a Hawaiian shirt, jeans, and gym shoes. However, I’ve learned the social necessity of dressing to fit the occasion and conforming with the requirements of the society in which I travel. Sometimes I’ve learned the hard way by not dressing appropriately, so maybe you can learn from my mistakes. If you’re not a conformist, this blog entry isn’t for you. However, this is advice I wish I’d paid attention to when I was younger.

Let’s start with an obvious but unspoken truth: people judge us by the clothes we wear. A while back, I attended a social gathering that was described as “semi formal.” Much to my dismay, I saw everything from jeans to t-shirts.”Casual Friday” has degenerated in some cases to flip-flops and t-shirts. You don’t have to be “that guy.” In fact, I recommend against it.

If you plan to spend all your time working from home and plan to never use Skype or a video chat system, then this advice doesn’t apply to you. If you plan on interviewing, meeting with clients face to face, or attending social gatherings, perhaps you’ll find this useful.

Basic Definitions

I don’t have to explain this. Casual is what you wear at home, when you’re off duty. It’s a casual country. The challenges arise when we face occasions where we are expected to go out of our way to look more presentable.

Business Casual
This varies from place to place, but in general this means Dockers or other cotton pants (not jeans) and a golf shirt or collared shirt with no necktie, plus black or brown shoes and dark socks. Jeans are allowed more often in the office, but if a social gathering specifies business casual, they’re generally a no-no.

This means a jacket and tie. Dockers are still permissible, and your pants and jacket don’t have to be the same color. Again, dark socks, dark shoes, no sneakers. This is also usually acceptable for job interviews or client meetings unless the client or event specifies otherwise.

Me Greg Rick and othersFormal/Business
If an event specifies formal attire, this means you’re wearing a suit–matching jacket and pants, maybe a vest thrown in, depending on the current style and your preferences. Ties can be colorful, and you can usually get away with one membership pin of some sort on your lapel. If you’re working and a suit is required for the job, you can usually lose the jacket if you’re away from the crowd or out of sight from the boss. If you can afford it, I highly recommend going to Men’s Wearhouse or some other store to get a tailored suit rather than something off the rack. I’m allergic to flowers, so I keep them off my lapel, but that’s always an option. If you feel like getting fancy (and if you go to Men’s Wearhouse, they’ll probably suggest it), you can get a pocket handkerchief to match the color of your shirt.

20110522_111139__MG_9725Black Tie
This is a specific variation of formal, in that you have to wear a tuxedo, usually black, but not always, with a vest (optional) and a bow tie–again, black, but fashionistas would probably say you can get away with something else. If you’re traveling with a date, you can do a subtle color matching of your shirt or tie with whatever they’re wearing. One thing you might consider buying for yourself is your own tuxedo and have it tailored properly. If you’re doing things right, you only have to buy one and it’ll pay for itself after 2-3 events (you can buy one for ~$200 whereas it costs about half that much to rent one with the pants and shoes).

The Most Interesting Space Geek in the World

White Tie
I have never attended a white tie event, but my general impression is that the look is white, down to the socks and shoes, and can include a long white tuxedo with tails, top hat, and white gloves. White tie events are for things like formal events at the White House. If you get to go to one, let me know what it’s like and how the dress code pans out.

What if they don’t specify the dress code?
For gosh sakes, ask. I showed up at a NASA Flight Readiness Review (FRR) in business casual gear (golf shirt and khakis–you know, Jake from State Farm). I arrived to find myself surrounded by suits. FRRs are considered formal business affairs because you or your organization is signing off to the agency that yea, verily, you believe the rocket is safe to launch. Ooops. Needless to say, I hid in the very back corner of the room, closest to the door so I could escape as soon as possible. Lesson learned.

On the other hand, there are informal social occasions that don’t require the full tux and tails. Depending on how well you know the people involved and the location of the event, it’s still better to slightly overdress. An employer of mine splits the difference for social events, wearing a blazer and turtleneck rather than a tie. I’d say “Use your common sense,” but I’ve seen too many examples of people who don’t have it to offer that advice. When in doubt, ask a friend. Or, in my opinion, a lady friend. Or a sister. Someone whom you know has your best interests in mind.

Other Basics

Here are some basics that I shouldn’t have to include, but good grief, I’ve seen enough silliness that I must now include them:

  • Maintain good grooming: shower, comb your hair, shave or keep your beard trimmed neatly, trim your fingernails. If you wear your hair long (like a young employee of mine did), consider a pony tail so it doesn’t distract.
  • Make sure your clothes are in good condition: don’t wear things with stains or holes in them. If your suit is wrinkled, make sure that you get it to a dry cleaner a week before the event so you have time to have it pressed.
  • Don’t forget to wear a belt. Or suspenders. Pick one, but wear it. (This one comes from my father who zinged me on that more than once.)
  • Don’t overdo the cologne.
  • Learn to tie a necktie. Learning to tie a bow tie, while a nice thing to know, is not completely necessary, as they sell more pre-tied bow ties than full-length ties. Of course your circumstances could vary.

Okay, I’m done nagging. Relax. If you make a fashion faux pas, it’s not the end of the world. That said, it can be a situation that causes others to question your judgment. Why? Because in some circumstances if you can’t make the effort to learn and match a simple dress code, people will wonder if you can keep your work products in order. It’s superficial and ridiculous, but it’s human nature.

Guidelines for Women

I will not even attempt to decipher women’s fashion requirements. Best of luck to you.


I was going to titled this section “Exceptions to the Rules,” but really fashion is about taste, and tastes change. My suggestions above might be considered too bourgeois or informal for some people, too stuffy for others. And there are folks like my former employer who are just anti-necktie and manage to get away with it. I’m the sort of fellow who gets taken aside and asked if I didn’t read the invitation correctly. So maybe you can brazen things out and wear high tops with your tuxedo. Bully for you. Meanwhile, if you’re not a particularly flashy dresser but don’t want to embarrass yourself, then perhaps my advice will be of some use to you.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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