Trade Show TalesBlog

Trade Show Attire: What Not to Wear

May 28th, 2024 23 COMMENTS

trade show attire

Trade shows are all about making a good impression, so what exhibitors wear matters. However, “What to Wear” is often the last checkbox on their trade show checklist. But it shouldn’t be. More than anything, trade show attire should be a conscious decision, one that mirrors your trade show strategy. It doesn’t matter if it’s formal and conservative, business casual, branded clothing, or thematic (think western wear, beach clothing, or outdoorsy). Leaving that decision to chance rarely goes well for any exhibitor.

Your trade show attire also matters to your staff. They want to know what is expected, not only during the show but also when meeting with clients before and after show hours. That doesn’t mean that everyone will agree, particularly when choosing branded apparel. Not everyone has to wear a polo or khaki pants, but everyone should wear complementary clothing that matches the booth theme or strategy.

The Importance of Professional Trade Show Attire

Your exhibit is part of a comprehensive marketing strategy to maximize your impact at the show. If that strategy doesn’t include a Trade Show Attire component, then you’ve missed a critical opportunity to promote your brand, your culture, and your theme. 

Trade show attire is important for eight key reasons:

  1. First Impressions:  At a trade show, you only have a short window to grab someone’s attention and make a positive impression. Professional attire shows you take your business seriously and are worth talking to.
  2. Brand Image: Your clothing is an extension of your brand. A polished, put-together look reflects well on your company and the products or services you offer.
  3. Credibility and Trust:  People tend to do business with those they perceive as competent and trustworthy. Sloppy or confusing booth attire can undermine that trust and make your company seem less credible.
  4. Building Relationships:  A friendly and approachable demeanor is important at trade shows. The right attire can help project that warmth and openness, making it easier to strike up conversations and build relationships.
  5. Confidence:  Feeling polished and put-together can do wonders for your confidence level. When you look good, you feel good, which translates into a more outgoing and engaging presence at the show. This can be especially helpful for overcoming nerves or shyness in these fast-paced environments.
  6. Team Cohesion:  A coordinated team look (even if it’s not identical outfits) can create a sense of unity and professionalism. This can be particularly impactful for smaller businesses trying to establish themselves.
  7. Safety and Functionality:  Depending on the trade show and your role, certain attire choices might be more practical. Closed-toe shoes are ideal for navigating crowded spaces and protecting your feet. Avoid loose clothing or dangling jewelry that could get caught on displays or equipment.
  8. Standing Out (Strategically):  While dressing professionally is key, a touch of strategic individuality can help you stand out in a positive way. This could be a pop of color in your accessories, a unique name tag design, or a conversation starter piece incorporated into your outfit.

What Not to Wear to a Trade Show 

Navigating the Do’s and Don’ts of trade show attire can be confusing. But you don’t have to be a member of the exhibition 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 practical, time-tested 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.

what to wear to a trade show

What to Wear to a Conference vs a Trade Show

Before diving into “What to Wear to a Conference,” let’s review the difference between a typical conference vs. a trade show. First of all, it’s not black and white. Either one can include the other. However, in general:


  • Conferences: Focus on information exchange and professional development. They feature keynote speeches, workshops, panel discussions, and presentations on industry trends, research, and best practices.
  • Trade Shows: Primarily about showcasing products and services to potential customers and building business relationships. They feature booths from companies, product demonstrations, and opportunities to network with industry professionals.



  • Conferences: The desired outcome is for attendees to gain knowledge, new skills, and valuable connections within their field.
  • Trade Shows: The goal is to generate leads and sales, and establish business partnerships.


Think of a conference as a classroom where you learn from experts, and a trade show as a marketplace where you explore different vendors and potentially make purchases.

As discussed before, your trade show attire as an exhibitor may be dictated by your company’s trade show marketing strategy. It can change from show to show depending on the audience, but it’s generally prescriptive for everyone. 

At a conference, particularly as an attendee vs. a presenter, what you wear will depend on four factors:

The Show
Expectations of what to wear vary depending on the industry and the conference. For example, the ALA’s Annual Conference (Association of Legal Administrators) may have a more formal dress code expectation, whereas The Car Wash Show Show and Conference may have a more informal vibe. Even at casual conferences, like the Experiential Designers and Producers Association annual event, there’s a black tie/dress event on the last night. There are also shows where a specific uniform is appropriate, such as military shows. 

Your Company’s Clothing Guidelines
What you wear at a conference may not always be your choice. Your company or organization may prefer you wear business or business casual. Or logo wear. If you are unsure what to wear, check with the show organizer and your executive team.  

Your Style and or Cultural Preference
What you wear at the conference may come down to your personal preference. It can be as simple as that. However, your personal preference may be dictated by cultural norms regarding dress both for men and women. For example, West African women attending a conference may wear a pagne, a colorful wraparound skirt. An  Indonesian male may choose to wear a batik shirt with short sleeves considered informal and long sleeves more formal. 

The Events at the Show 
Even at casual conferences, like the Experiential Designers and Producers Association annual event, there’s a black tie/dress event on the last night. What’s appropriate at the educational sessions or the speaker events may be different from the meals and receptions. Again, when in doubt, ask a colleague who has attended before or contact the show organizer. 

trade show dress code

Creating Your Own Team Trade Show Dress Code or Guidelines 

So, what’s the most important thing to consider when drafting/creating your trade show dress code or guidelines? That’s easy! The people who will be attending the trade show and staffing the booth. Yes, there’s a lot more to consider, which we’ll detail below, but all that doesn’t matter if your team isn’t on board with the decision of what to wear. They have to be comfortable and confident and buy into your trade show goals and strategy. If not, then it’s a bit like dressing a six-year-old for the first day of class. If the child is unhappy, then it makes for a miserable day… for everyone. However, unlike a six-year-old, you have a much better chance of presenting the options if there’s a clear and thoughtful strategy. 

When drafting your dress code or guidelines, consider the following: 

Your Graphic Theme, Corporate Culture, and Experiential Objectives
While those are a lot to consider, all three should be the foundation of your decision. Participating in a trade show isn’t an excuse for a vacation. It’s a business event with a purpose and a goal (typically to increase sales). Treat it with the same attention to detail you would invest in creating/reviewing an annual budget. It’s that important. 

Level of Formality:
Industry-standard: Is your industry typically formal (suits), business professional (dress pants and blazers), or business casual (slacks and collared shirts)? 

Comfort and Practicality:
Trade shows involve a lot of standing and walking. Ensure footwear is comfortable and clothes allow for movement. Consider the climate and venue. Will it be hot and crowded, or cool and air-conditioned?

Branding and Professionalism:
Make sure attire reflects your company’s brand image. For example, a tech startup might have a more relaxed dress code than a financial services firm. Clothes should be clean, ironed, and wrinkle-resistant.

Additional considerations:

Company Logo: Will employees wear logo shirts or branded accessories? If so, consider appropriate logo wear specifically designed for women and men. 

Cultural Sensitivity: Be mindful of cultural norms around dress code, especially for international events.

Feedback and Fashion Faux Pas from the Floor

Let’s be honest. Everyone has their own opinions about trade show attire dos and don’ts. And those opinions are evolving in a post-pandemic environment. However, the basics still ring true. Clean, comfortable, and appropriate shoes are a must. Unisex clothing rarely gets rave reviews from the trade show staff. And when it comes to jewelry and cologne, a little goes a long way. One final piece of advice (from experience). Don’t forget to bring a belt. Having to purchase a $145 belt from a designer store in a Vegas casino is a painful lesson.  

My sincere thanks to the fashion-forward exhibitors for their suggestions, some of which cannot be printed without an R or X rating. Suffice to say that the term “athletic wear” was a contentious topic.

What did we miss? Add your “What Not to Wear” suggestions and comments. 

For 30 years, Classic Exhibits has been designing and building creative custom solutions for our Distributor Partners and their clients. As the largest private-label exhibit manufacturer in North America, we have the unmatched capability, capacity, and creativity to create 3D projects ranging from 10 x 10 inline displays to 60 x 80 double-deck islands. 

Find success on the trade show floor with an exhibit that reflects your marketing message. For more information, see and explore Exhibit Design Search or request a meeting with a Classic Distributor Partner.

What did we miss? Add your “What Not to Wear” suggestions and comments .

–Mel White

Additional Articles:

What Smells? The Top 10 Trade Show Odors
Love on Aisle #600 — Trade Shows and Events
Trade Shows as First Dates

Based in Portland, Oregon, Classic Exhibits Inc. designs and manufacturers portable, modular, and custom-hybrid exhibit solutions. Classic Exhibits products are represented by an extensive distributor network in North America and in select International markets. For more information, contact us at 866-652-2100 or



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23 Responses to “Trade Show Attire: What Not to Wear”

  1. mel says:

    Hi Jane–

    MHHFFF . . . Male with High Heel Foot Fetish (Freak).

    Male cleavage? . . . Thanks for that disturbing image on a Monday morning. Kramer and Mr. Costanza would be proud.


  2. Ok – What does MHHFFF stand for? And concerning cleavage, was that cleavage on men or women?

  3. Denise Hinton says:

    More on undies: underwear should not show through your clothing. A black or animal print bra under a sheer blouse might be okay at a night club but it’s not okay in the booth.
    Skirts: they need to cover most of your lower half, especially if you need to bend over to pick something up. Better idea, wear pants. I vote no on cleavage for women and for men (plumber’s crack).

  4. JoAnn says:

    I think we should add on their proper attire for install and dismantle…..

  5. Dave Ryder says:

    While I agree with nearly everything here, I can also say it is critical to dress professionally. Frankly, I prefer to talk to someone who is selling and representing his/her company who is a little over-dressed because the norm seems to be dressing (as an exhibitor) for comfort and not for style or professionalism. I nearly always approach a booth, whether I need the services or products or not, if I believe that the person may be a professional contact for future business transactions. If I don’t need the promotional products today, perhaps sometime I will and if the representative is professionally attired and coiffed, there is nearly a 100% chance I will stop. This is even more important if I have paid to enter the show or attend the conference. As a client attending a trade show, the same is true. I always wear a suit or at least a very nice sport coat and slacks because I am representing my company’s credibility to the sellers. It is a two-way street and while the saying “the clothes don’t make the man” has achieved cliche’ status, clothes nonetheless make the image and send a very valuable message. Exhibitors will spend more time with me if I am professionally dressed. Thanks for publishing this.

  6. Lori says:

    Okay come on… if your going to hit the girls about our underwear then you must mention to the men not to adjust body parts below the waist while chatting with us. Scratching and shifting is not really attractive either.

    Not really fashion.. but very unfashionable…..
    I can’t tell you how many guys have picked their nose right in front of me as well as used their pen to clean our their ears while we’re talking…..

  7. Candy Adams says:

    My pet peeve is exhibit staff who wear shirts that SHOULD have been ironed — but weren’t. They look about as attractive as an unmade bed, and professionalism and company image just went out the window.

    Regardless of how “casual” you dress for work on a daily basis, PLEASE either send your shirts out to be pressed for the show, or do it in your hotel room.

    I even pack a small hand-held clothing steamer and a heavy-duty wooden clothes hanger in my gang box — they don’t call me The Booth Mom for nothing!!

    Candy Adams, CTSM, CME, CEM, CMP, CMM
    a.k.a. “The Booth Mom®”

  8. mel says:

    You won’t get an argument from me, Lori. Although I’m not sure how I’m going to get those three images out of my head.

    Very funny and oh so disturbing.

  9. Horst says:

    As I am doing business in Europe and the US, I see the huge gap between those, especially German exhibitors, who dress like they are going to a funeral, (black suit and tie), and the Americans, wearing poloshirts with company logo.

    How do you guys feel about this German overkill, does that appeal to you, or do you think this overdress is inapropriate for a tradeshow?

  10. I’m completely in agreement with the idea of representing your company professionally. Some attendee’s prefer to talk to someone with khaki’s and a polo shirt because they are more approachable then the guys in the booth who are wearing the black suit and tie. Some others prefer to talk to the guys in the black suits…

    I think a lot of what people wear needs to be adjusted when you figure out who the attendee is. If you’re going to a show where there will be a younger attendee or “blue collar” workers, you may want to go with a more casual outfit, but if you’re going to a show where most of the attendees are “white collar” workers or people who are higher up on the food chain, well, the suit and tie maybe the way to go. Investigate your audience THEN decide what to wear… This is not said to be prejudicial but the more you know about who you’re attendee is, the more prepared you can be. But as the list suggests, don’t wear new shoes, don’t “adjust” in the booth, be smart with your attire, comfortable, clean AND non-odorous!

  11. Molly Abel says:

    I couldn’t agree more on the golf clothing! Perhaps people believe that because they play a popular game that many executives play, they somehow magically assume the qualities of professionalism and success, and wearing golf attire lets everyone know this…? To me, it just looks silly.

  12. I think (assuming professionalism is demonstrated) the most important thing is the ability to easily find the person in the booth who “works there”. Whether it is logo apparel, consistent dress, or a custom badge (not the show issued one) an attendee wants to find someone that can help them, and to see as they pass by if someone is available before they step in the booth.

    At a recent show I had an attendee come up to me three different times (in differeent booths) to ask me a question about the exhibitor’s product. It was kind of like going to Macy’s wearing black. People get annoyed when they can’t find someone to help them. Granted, Vegas cocktail waitress dress would be innapporpriate at Chuck E Cheeese, but the ability to spot a server easily is what people want.

  13. Micki says:

    And guys~ if you bought a last minute button down in the airport, at the very least, iron it. You look like you can’t dress yourself, let alone close a deal, when you have creases and fold marks all over your torso. I still giggle every time I see this.

  14. Ray says:

    What should you wear to a virtual trade show?

  15. As both a trade show trainer and image consultant, this subject is definitely a hot button for me! Too many exhibitors look disheveled and unprofessional, creating a poor impression for their company. A good rule of thumb is to consider the personality of your company and who your target audience is, then dress accordingly. For example, if you sell a fun or kid-oriented product you’d look out of place in a suit. But if you sell high-dollar items, you probably won’t get far in a Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. Logowear is popular now, but even with that you have numerous degrees of professional dress to choose from.

    Oh, and by the way, regarding perfume … less is always better. In fact, with so many people who are allergic these days, you’re running a risk of alienating someone the minute they approach your booth.

    Great article, Mel!

    Marlys Arnold, ImageSpecialist

  16. Drew Goodall says:

    If, you could all please wear shinable shoes please so we can clean them at the show! Will put us out of business otherwise!

  17. Kelly Steitz says:

    You’re taking all of the fun out of tradeshows! If everyone was professional and put together, what would be our source of entertainment during the slow periods?

  18. mel says:


    I only wish I had the power and influence to affect those changes. Heck, I’d be asking for global peace and the end to hunger and disease next. Or should I ask for those first?

    Thanks for the comment.


  19. Billy says:

    How do you feel about designer brand dress shirts with company logo? A sort of high-end fashion statement, with logo for a technology based show?

    Maybe a nice Gucci or D& G dress shirt with dress pants and a company logo on left chest?

  20. mel says:


    Great idea. Professional, tactful, and appropriate.

  21. Justine says:

    As a younger professional, I think it works to my advantage to dress a little more formally. It helps me to convey that I am a decision maker and as worthwhile to speak to as some of my older colleagues.

  22. JZ says:

    BLahahah! Mel – I love this article! So very true about the mens shoes! Buy your new shoes for Exhibitor Show now so that they are broken in by March!

    Also- The women’s undies topic?? That was a bold topic and you addressed it nicely!

    See you in March!


  23. Sarah says:

    I’m about attend my first trade show and this article was very helpful, thank you! I also I thought you also might be interested in this infographic I found on trade show booth etiquette:

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