Gini Dietrich

Jeans Not Appropriate for Business Meetings

By: Gini Dietrich | August 21, 2012 | 

Don’t worry…I’m on vacation only one more day after today. I’ll be back on Thursday. In the meantime, check out this hugely controversial blog post from 2010. My stance still hasn’t changed (I will never wear jeans when I speak), though I’ve decided if your jeans are dark, fit well, and are accompanied with something suitable on top, it’s not as big a deal as it was to me two years ago. 

I get jeans have become the social media uniform. But I don’t get why so many really popular public speakers think it’s okay to wear jeans when they are on stage, particularly if they look like you just rolled out of bed.

In our industry, everyone complains that we still don’t have a seat at the boardroom table, yet we think it’s okay to wear jeans as our professional dress. If you want to sit at the table in the greater business conversation, you have to look like you belong there.

But jeans are not suitable for professional speakers, social media nerds, or any professional meeting.

I remember many years ago, Gary Kisner (who ran the Fleishman-Hillard Kansas City office) told me that you have to look the part if you want people to take you seriously. He was using this lesson in the context of telling me to stop biting my fingernails. He asked me why I thought real estate agents drove nice cars or bankers wore expensive suits. It’s because people want to do business with professionals who LOOK like they’re successful. The banker may have only one expensive suit, but he looks the part. The real estate agent may have had to forgo buying a house for the nice car, but when clients get in her car, they think she’s successful.  Perception very much is reality.

If you want a seat at the proverbial table, look and act like you belong there. You’ll go from offering social media consulting as a tool in the toolbox to having very high-level conversations about strategy and business growth, as it relates to your expertise.

People want to work with professionals who look successful and, let’s be real, even though your jeans cost $200, if they don’t fit well and they’re wrinkled, they’re still jeans.

As my mom always says, “It’s better to be overdressed than under-dressed.”

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • belllindsay

    What are you, 102 years old…!? 😉

    •  @belllindsay That’s funny. 

      • belllindsay

         @Lisa Gerber Just teasing – I respect @ginidietrich for her sense of ‘what works’ – lord knows she’s doing something right! People *do* judge a book by its cover, unfortunately. 

  • How about shorts? It’s dumb that we are judged on what we wear not what we say.
    This TedX talk on how fashion has been used to divide society is really interesting:

    •  @si_francis Hi, I’m jumping in for Gini while she’s out….it is dumb, isn’t it? But people judge a book by it’s cover, and a bottle of wine by it’s label, and that’s dumb too. As we say around here… people.

  • DanOnBranding

    Yes and no. I for one am not comfortable taking an important business meeting in jeans (although I think some can get away with it when they wear a nice jacket with it). But professional speakers? Totally different story. I’m paying to see them speak so I could care less what they wear. Am I really going to be that upset if they wear jeans? No way. “What they said was totally insightful and useful, but what’s with the Levi’s?” sounds very petty in the big scheme of things and it’s a different dynamic going on. I saw 6 speakers recently at a social media conference and none of them were that dressed up – but I didn’t respect them any less for their wardrobe decisions.

  • Ok, so I am sitting in my office wearing plaid shorts, a t-shirt with sail fish on it, a sun visor, and sandals…. I have 2 meetings this morning, do you think I will change for them?I live at the beach, and this is how I dress…. period. 

    •  @keithbloemendaal Plaid shorts? hmmm. (just kidding) actually, I live at a ski resort  – when my husband goes to important meetings, he puts his “dressy” jeans on. Anyone here in nice clothes looks like a salesman – there is always context to be considered. But same idea really… dressing the part. 

  • ginidietrich

    @si_francis It was a very controversial post when it first ran.

  • digitalmiss

    @ginidietrich @frugalista so glad i work in an industry where jeans are highly appropriate for meetings with CEOs lol

    • ginidietrich

      @digitalmiss Your company rocks

  • Except when they are

  • kentjulia

    @ginidietrich Agreed!

    • ginidietrich

      @kentjulia So many reasons to love you!

  • ginidietrich

    @aileenabella There definitely are two camps about it

  • Hey Gini,
    Thanks for the insight and I must say I completely agree.  One thing I learned while doing my MBA is to dress for the position you want, not the position you have.
    If you don’t believe me do yourself a favour and conduct this experiment: make reservations to a classy restaurant and wear a fancy suit or business professional attire. Make note of the quality and speed of service. Pay attention to the way your server speaks to you and notice their body language. Then make reservations to another classy restaurant, arrive late and under dressed, and notice the difference in quality and service.
    Everyone takes you more seriously when you dress the part. In my experience, people think you’re more important and think you have much more to offer. More people want to be around you when you look good, not to mention the level of confidence you exude! 
    Like attracts like. 
    However, there’s also something to be said about understanding your audience. And if you’re @kbloemendaal and you live at the beach, and so do your clients, by all means wear shorts and flip flops! 

    •  @GeoffReiner  @kbloemendaal Exactly on a number of points:
      1. About the dressing for the audience.
      Actually, when I first started off in my professional career, I was a concierge with a company that had tons of growth potential for me. I went out and spent a lot of money on clothes, and dressed for the position I wanted, not the one I had. I got there in less than two years. 
      Performance is obviously the priority but I strongly believe it happened faster because I dressed the part.  – They took me more seriously. 
      I’m doing that experiment. I’ll report back!!

      •  @Lisa Gerber That’s awesome!  And make sure you’re late for your reservation when you’re dressed down. Hostesses hate that :)Hey, here’s an idea to make this interesting… Why don’t we both book reservations the same evenings and do a comparison. Email me if you’re interested in this little case study 🙂 
        Enjoy the day Lisa!

      •  @Lisa Gerber 
         Lisa that’s awesome!  And make sure you’re late for your reservation when you’re dressed down. Hostesses hate that 🙂
        Hey, here’s an idea to make this interesting… Why don’t we both book reservations the same evenings and do a comparison. Email me if you’re interested in this little case study 🙂 

        •  @GeoffReiner OK!!! Going to email you now!

  • Kim_Parr

    @kmueller62 I guess it depends on the type of business… and the type of meeting… but in general, I agree.

  • TroyClaus

    LOL RT @geoffreiner: Don’t you hate pants? Learn why Gini says jeans are no good for meetings 😉 Thanks @ginidietrich

  • ginidietrich

    @geoffreiner It’s funny to see how emotional people get about it.

  • Depends on the industry. Tech and creatives wear jeans; I was demoing jugnoome technology yesterday to a company who have offices in more than 50 countries, and a $1 billion annual turnover. All three execs (VPs and SVPs) were in jeans. I was in shorts.
    Suits and power dressing is cool for those that prefer it; it’s not a necessity, though.

    •  @Danny Brown  What?!?! You didn’t wear your kilt? 

      • rdopping

         @Lisa Gerber Kilt = shorts in DB speak…..;-)

    •  @Danny Brown  Agreed! Being in the Tech industry & dealing with creatives its always jeans. Even the marketing firms we deal with its jeans. Large firms, jeans.  Existing clients we have seen & done shorts as well. 

      •  @sydcon_mktg Here’s to more jeans and dressing as we please, and letting the expertise be the real driver of partnerships. As it should be.

  • WayneHendry

    Could not agree with you more on the issue of dress. Remember the mantra “dress for success”? It still applies because people are mostly visual: if it looks good, it’s worthy of more attention. More than that if you look good, you feel good and that is more than half the battle of being successful.

    •  @WayneHendry Yep, and I like the way @GeoffReiner put it – dress for the position you want. 

  • I know a lot of “executives” who dressed themselves right into significant debt. I don’t believe in a hard and fast rule for this. I have been in meetings where the guy in the tie was looked down upon because he was seen as wearing the “emperor’s new clothes.”

    •  @TheJackB You can sometimes spot the ‘new clothes’ and when that person just isn’t comfortable dressing the part; it’s a role their playing, not themselves. FWIW.

      •  @3HatsComm  @TheJackB There is definitely a fine line. Overdoing it is just as uncool as under-doing it. 🙂 Sheesh, now we’ll confuse the hell out of people! 

  • Agreed! I work in an industry that sometimes feels like an “old boys club” at the corporate level. The way you get a seat at the table (beyond being awesome at what you do) is by looking like you belong there, as you say. It has helped me get ahead and be taken seriously. 
    However a female executive friend of mine in her late 50’s who works in the tech world told me just the other day that if she wants VC firms to take them seriously when they seek funding, they have to show up in jeans. It’s an interesting time we live in, to say the least.

    •  @JenFongSpeaks That’s interesting, about the VC perspective. It must speak a certain level of cool-ness. If you dress up in the suit, you’re trying too hard – you need it too bad, that kind of thing? 

  • I’ve seen jeans work – and not work. Varies per the audience (h/t @GeoffReiner ) , the event or occasion, the wearer and that person’s role at the event. I’ve been at meetings with jeans, jacket and looked as “put together,” professional as the rest of the room. @keithbloemendaal mentioned shorts; I know there are times that’s part of the sales pitch, a conference at some pricey beach resort – a chance for attendees to be more confortable, get out of their work clothes.
    Again, it varies. Location, culture have a lot to do w/ it. Atlanta has – probably b/c it’s hotter than blue blazes here 8 months of the year – adopted a more relaxed fashion ‘code’ and if you don’t HAVE to wear a suit, then it’s a polo and khakis (bonus if they’re well fit, unwrinkled). Now I will cosign a memo to nix the strapless sundresses and flip flops at work; yes it’s hot but it’s also not the beach. 
    FWIW I wear what I think is best –  which depends on where I’m going, who’s the audience, why I’m there. Suits are rare, usually it’s business casual; and if I think my jeans look work appropriate and right for the situation, I’ll wear them.

    •  @3HatsComm  @GeoffReiner  @keithbloemendaal and when in doubt, go middle of the road! 🙂

      •  @Lisa Gerber  @GeoffReiner  @keithbloemendaal I’m the introvert, don’t like to stand out – so middle of the road, blending w/ the wallpaper is exactly my comfort zone. 😉

        •  @3HatsComm  @Lisa Gerber  @keithbloemendaal 
          I tend to be a bit out there (big time extrovert) and would rather be over dressed than take a middle ground. However, it’s all about being comfortable and having the most amount of confidence!   

        •  @GeoffReiner @3HatsComm @Lisa Gerber this is how you dress for a talk and btw great talk it is

        •  @HowieG  @3HatsComm  @Lisa Gerber 
          He’s comfortable, confident and he is being authentic!  Couldn’t agree more Howie 😉

  • M_Koehler

    My stance is still the same, no jeans. Unless you are in a factory jeans are not an appropriate outfit for public speaking. I’m weird, I don’t even like wearing them into the office. When we are offered blue jeans days I pass. None of my jeans are outlandish but I tend to go loose and baggy for comfort and that just isn’t an appropriate office look. And NEVER wear skinny jeans to the office.

    •  @M_Koehler OMG no skinny jeans.

      •  @Lisa Gerber @M_Koehler but @geoffliving loves Skinny Jeans

  • joeruiz

    @bettervideo That’s a lot of ifs to be such a firm declaration.

    • bettervideo

      @joeruiz Agreed. But basic premise is sound. “Why don’t the suits take sm/pr/web/video more seriously?” Try dressing/acting like an adult.

  • WayneHendry

    Some really good perspectives here.  I agree with 3HatsComm that it varies according to the audience so maybe jeans and DC shoes can work amongst a younger audience.

  • carrieatthill

    @annereuss I was in a meeting once where someone showed up in jean shorts & a tank top

  • It’s not bad to look out of place — if you’re overdressed. It’s bad to look out of place if you’re underdressed. How uncomfortable is it when you walk into a conference room with clients and you’re the only one in jeans? You better have quite a schtick to pull it off. Granted, I worked in San Francisco for 19 years, and there were some people who did just that. The Men’s Warehouse guys were the anomaly. 

    •  @barrettrossie Right?!?! and this may not be the case for everyone, but it can throw you off – you feel a disadvantage in the power game when you look and feel underdressed. 

  • I think our mothers must know each other, Gini!  I always got that same advice and would rather be overdressed than underdressed any day of the week. I wonder if these rules are different for women. After all, when I think of people who wear jeans when they speak, it’s more often men than women. Do women have a tougher time pulling it off? Just wondering aloud…
    I think this really boils down to the speaker and the audience. I spoke at PodCamp – a free event at a bar on a Saturday – and wore jeans and a blazer because the environment was super casual. I would have looked sorely out of touch if I had worn a suit or something dressy that day. On the flip side, I spoke to a group of attorneys a couple of weeks ago and totally wore a dress and pumps. I think you just have to know your audience and the environment.
    All of this discussion is clear that social norms regarding workplace dress have changed dramatically in the past 5-10 years!

    •  @lauraclickI think Wieden+Kennedy co-founder David Kennedy wore jeans and a denim shirt every day for the 15 years or so he was active in running the business. But he lived on a farm and drove 45 minutes into downtown Portland every day. And of course, he was David Kennedy. 

      •  @barrettrossie in my comment I mentioned that the workplace and speaking is different. Same as sales. If you are going to wear jeans you need to be so special and unique people won’t care. But since 99.999999% of the people who speak aren’t they can’t get away with it and be credible.
        I used to have Oak Tree productions as an account when I was in my first sales job in 1993. It is Arnold Schwartzeneggers. During his height of movie fame. I saw him in a meeting with big shot lawyers in suits. He was wearing a t shirt safari shorts and black military boots. Everyone in his office was in t shirts and jeans. The lawyers still wore their suits.

    •  @lauraclick My business coach has always told me to dress one step above what everyone else is wearing. If they were wearing jeans, I should wear business casual, if they wore biz casual, I should wear a suit.
      Her take has always been – you don’t want to look like the attendees, you want them to know you’re the speaker. I usually try to follow her advice, but you’re right, you don’t want to stand out or look out of touch.

      •  @penneyfox  @lauraclick I like that advice!!

  • MSGiro

    @shonali If @ginidietrich does not wear jeans to our first professional meeting, she’s fired.

    • shonali

      @msgiro Hahah! @ginidietrich

  • kamichat

    I am totally with you here, Gini.

  • kamichat

    @bettervideo @ginidietrich I really do think that jeans are not for business speakers. Dress the part people.

    • bettervideo

      @kamichat You’ll get no argument from me. But I do admit I’ve gotten a little lazy on wardrobe around the office. Good, timely reminder, 🙂

  • rdopping

    The suit makes the man? Look the part? Dress for success? Surely that may get you to the table but any dumb-ass can buy an expensive suit…….
    My opinion is that you dress according to the culture of your clientèle (within reason) so if they are bankers; wear a suit, if they are techies; wear jeans and a nice collared shirt and a funky tie. Who AM I? Ralph Lauren? Sheesh….
    If they are architect’s it does matter as long as it’s black……doh.

  • RealRobinsonIV

    @djgraffiti @Tinu @ginidietrich What if your business is selling jeans?

    • djgraffiti

      @RealRobinsonIV @Tinu @ginidietrich The irony is that in my experience most ‘urban’ jean brand owners rarely seem to wear their own.

      • RealRobinsonIV

        @djgraffiti @Tinu @ginidietrich, that’s like a ford executive driving a dodge.

  • “Suitable”? It all depends on who you ask…

  • JillSTL

    @AndreeaC_T @tinu @ginidietrich dress the part – jeans only ok if everyone is wearing them …

  • AdamSinger

    @ginidietrich jeans are not only appropriate: they’re required. I personally wouldn’t work at an agency that didn’t allow jeans 🙂

  • Ha!  Glad your views have changed!  I recall a one PR person introducing two very important speakers on a stage recently and he was wearing jeans!   I do like the modification:  dark jeans and a something appropriate.  Like a jacket?  Shoes are important too.  Can’t pull the uniform together without some classy Italian shoes!  BTW, I didn’t intend to wear jeans that day; but had a little issue with my dress pants that very morning and the jeans were all I had with me! 🙂 But now, I sort of like them.  

  • JHTScherck

    I think the way you dress have a huge effect on how you hold yourself and communicate with clients. It changes your perception. I act more professional when I dress up. That being said, if no clients are coming in – I am going to probably be rocking pastel shorts and flip flops 😉

  • JHTScherck

    I think the way you dress has a huge effect on how you hold yourself and communicate with clients. It changes your perception and mannerisms to a certain extent. I act more professional when I dress up. That being said, if no clients are coming in – I am going to probably be rocking pastel shorts and flip flops 😉

    •  @JHTScherck TRUE. I work from home and if I have important calls and meetings, even though they are virtual, I dress up. Well, I take a shower.
      Seriously, though, I put on some nice clothes so I feel on top of my game. 

      •  @Lisa Gerber I’ve used the trick before and it does work. 

  • FelicityFields

    @ginidietrich I’m waiting for the day when they come out with “business jeans.”

  • geoffliving

    Um, that’s why Gini wore a jean jacket when we spoke together in Toronto!  LOL.

    •  @Danny Brown  That’s a jacket. Totally different. 

      •  @ginidietrich I dunno – people in the audience were asking who the vagabond was on stage with @geoffliving , they were expecting you in Armani.

        •  @Danny Brown  @Klout why did I hit reply and Klout came up instead of @geoffliving + @ginidietrich must be Danny love?
          Anyway Gini was dressing grunge just like Toronto does.

        • rdopping

           @HowieG  @Danny Brown  @geoffliving  @ginidietrich
           Your stepping on my territory with that comment! Grunge belongs to Seattle and that was the 90’s dude….:-)

      • geoffliving

        What a convenient rationalization!

      • geoffliving

         @ginidietrich  @Danny Brown Yeah, I don’t think so.

  • ShannonEvansSM

    I think it depends on the culture of the agency, and area of the country you work in. I work in San Diego, and the norm is jeans and a nice top. There aren’t many companies who dress formal here. However, I think in Chicago and the East coast that isn’t the case.
    But I do agree, when in doubt it’s better to be over dressed than under-dressed. 

  • OneJillian

    NOT AT ALL. #southerntweets RT // @ginidietrich Are jeans appropriate for all business settings? []

  • JessicaNorthey

    @ginidietrich all the business meetings I wanna go to. I prefer, PJs and jeanskirts 🙂 #CMchat

    • ginidietrich

      @JessicaNorthey I’d prefer my cycling clothes.

  • Where can I sign up for the column on Spandex™ bike shorts? 

    •  @barrettrossie That’s a good dare for her next speaking engagement.

  • AnnHawkins

    @berniejmitchell Bloggers worst attribute. Pick a controversial but inconsequential subject to get a lot of comments then repeat. Lazy

  • thecommsdept

    @BernieJMitchell @ginidietrich Are we paid for what we know, or what we wear?

    • BernieJMitchell

      @thecommsdept what we know! – I disagres with (the lovely) @ginidietrich – I favour @avinash dress sense 🙂

    • BernieJMitchell

      @thecommsdept ah! Email coming tomorrow now – venue is near the Stand BTW – @WaggenerEdstrom

  • stephrochefort

    @daveegauthier @ginidietrich i wouldn’t wear jeans to my job (ever), but if you’re not sure better to err on the side of caution and avoid!

  • KevinVandever

    You brought this back for my benefit, didn’t you? I like the direction you’re heading with your stance on this topic. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts two years from now. 

  • I am late I know. And I agree with you. People have a misnomer that because industries have certain dress codes at work that they can dress like this when interacting with people OUTSIDE of their own workspace. I gave a presentation in full business suit to a team at a major ad agency media buying division on casual friday to a bunch of people in jeans and t shirts. That is how I was supposed to dress for them to take me seriously.
    A speaker is a Salesperson. Doesn’t matter what your title. When you speak you are a Salesperson. You are selling what you are speaking about and selling yourself to be asked to speak again.
    BTW Zuckerberg is getting hammered by bankers about his dress when interacting with wall street and now the business news is asking ‘should he step down’.

    • rdopping

       @HowieG Did you wear a suit because they normally do? I think casual has been taken too far, is all. Professional dress is important. It signals respect; of yourself…. 

      •  @rdopping I could of dress business casual with slacks and collared shirt. I chose the suit because it was my first time meeting these folks. It is ok for sales people to dress towards the upper end of a clients dress code when relationship is built. I used to have oil refineries and customers and stopped wearing my suits because sometimes I was taken to very dirty areas to look at equipment etc or spent a lot of time in maintenance shops so i would have a nice golf shirt and docker style slacks and shoes but not dress shoes.
        I agree the dress code thing has gone too soft in many places.

  • Allie0zioql


    • JoetteDeFratus

      @Allie0zioql seriously? #ihatespam

  • ladylaff

    I totally agree.  I take it one step further and think it is kind of passive-aggressively arrogant and disrespectful to wear jeans (and yes, hoodies too) because it sends a subtle message that you do not care what your audience thinks.  Granted when I started my carreer in PR, the women in my agency were not even allowed to wear trouser-suits, so I’m glad we’ve relaxed the dress code a little.  Especially now that we always have to crawl under boardroom tables to plug in our equipment, ha ha!!

    •  @ladylaff Oh geez, when will they put the outlets on the table top? !!!

  • ginidietrich

    @BernieJMitchell It’s just as controversial today and it was then

    • BernieJMitchell

      @ginidietrich I’m going to a meeting with @andybargery in combat jeans…. 😉 How was your holiday?

      • ginidietrich

        @BernieJMitchell I’m flying home in jeans.

  • I ask myself 2 questions before a meeting: 1. How do they dress? 2. What do I want to exude? A nice sharp pair of jeans with a good shirt and jacket can exude confidence and can be a match for certain companies’ cultures. In other environments, such as finance you must have a suit, and it’d better be a well-fitted suit. I’ve seen suits that looked so bad, some of those kids with their pants around their knees and boxers sticking out exude more confidence than the bad suit. 

  • crestodina

    I tend to agree…in theory but not in practice. I have 10 appointments on my calendar for today (I’m not kidding) and I’m wearing jeans. I’ve done some pretty impressive things with jeans on. I’ve sold millions in web services and taught web marketing to 1000+ people.I almost never wear dress pants.
    I’ll probably keep doing these things in jeans, but to be honest, I would look a bit more polished (and be a bit more confident) in some nice, pressed pants.
    Need to go shopping. I hate shopping. Grrrr….

  • When it comes to presenting yourself in any setting, fit is really key. By that I mean that your clothes should fit you well and play to the strengths of your body type. You can spend a lot of money on a suit and wear it everyday, but if it fits you horribly, you are better off wearing cheap jeans that are tailored perfectly for your measurements. Jeans, a suit, shorts, just wear something that fits you well.

  • SJAbbott

    I always find discussion of workplace fashion interesting, especially when it comes to presenting a professional image to outsiders. There are so many factors and different corp cultures that “rules” are incredibly subjective. The common rule of thumb is to dress one style “more professional” than your audience (or client). Banking audience = tailored suit w/stylish extras. Tech audience = dark jeans w/collared shirt & dress shoes. Overdressed is just as uncomfortable as under-dressed. A person should know their market—and scruffy, dirty, damaged, clashing or wrinkled are never acceptable. 
    The challenge for any audience is to ask themselves, “are this person’s ideas wrong because they are dressed ‘incorrectly’?” Mark Zuckerberg won’t be a better leader in a suit—and he might be worse.

  • avanluna

    RT @Steveology: Jeans Not Appropriate for Business Meetings via @ginidietrich

  • I’ve presented to clients who were all in jeans, and felt great.  But, if I had worn jeans and they were all in power suits? Not so much.  As you say, better to err on the side of caution… better to be over than under-dressed.  And very true that you should know your audience.  If you’re speaking to construction workers, will they relate to you more if you’re in jeans? Probably.  That said, those jeans should be free of rips, tears and holes, they should not sit so low that you “crack” everyone when you sit or bend down, and they should be worn with dress shoes, and an appropriate top and jacket.  That’s just my take.   

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