What Not to Wear at A Speech and Debate Tournament

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Whether you like it or not, your clothes are part of your presentation at a speech tournament.

Take it from someone who wore a couple very unfortunate ensembles during her first month of competition before she noticed everyone else was wearing black business suits: your judges definitely notice what you wear, and the truth of the matter is that it definitely plays a part in how the majority of your judges will rank you. They would never dream of admitting it, they might not write about it on your ballot, and they probably aren’t even aware that they noticed your wrinkled shirt or the hair falling in front of your eyes, but they are subconsciously certain that something about your performance was somehow less spectacular than that of your opponent – who happened to be wearing the classic charcoal gray suit and tie.

Your appearance should never be the main focus of your preparation for a tournament. Always spend plenty of time developing your characters, studying your evidence for debate, and shaping up your speaking skills. But remember that your job at a speech tournament is to make sure that your audience stays focused on the quality of your preparation and your performance -- and if you look disheveled, it will distract from your hard work. The idea here is to look professional and put together. Do not go out and buy a three-piece suit from The Limited or spend $200 on a pair of shoes so you can be ready for the tournament. That is not what dressing for a speech tournament is about! You don't need to spend a ton of money; you just need to come across as a well-groomed person. This means: Take a shower. Clean yourself. And try to choose an outfit that is simple, polished and professional. If you're low on cash and you don't have anything that meets the requirements for your district, you can always find great dress clothes at thrift stores if you know where to look.

This is not the end-all-be-all of speech tournament dress code rules, but it is a set of guidelines to consider when you’re trying to decide on your performance ensemble.

What Not To Wear:

1. Casual/night out attire. It’s a sign of disrespect when you show up to a round looking like you could just as easily be running out to go to a movie with your friends. This means that when you’re choosing your clothes for a speech tournament, your fingers should not even graze anything denim, sequined, or transparent. This also means no spaghetti straps, strapless tops, T-shirts, or shorts. Also, no shirts with an image of a shirt and tie on them, ever. If you wear any of these things, you will embarrass yourself and your team.

2. Inappropriate footwear. No tennis shoes, no flip flops, no sandals.

3. Black tie. Tuxedos and formal gowns have their place, but not at a speech and debate competition.

4. Crazy. Furry shoes, cowboy hats, Flashy jewelry (especially dangling earrings, which move when you speak), sunglasses, giant pendants and pins (It’s fine that you support a cause, but if you have any enormous pendants or pins, you should take them off before you perform) or brightly colored suspenders.

5. Wild makeup. Natural makeup is best for a speech tournament; your audience needs to be paying attention to your performance, not your sparkly green eyeshadow and Bond-girl eyeliner.

Also, don’t wear something that makes it impossible for you to move around, especially if you are competing in H.I. or Duet Acting. You should always try to be comfortable, and if your jacket restricts the movement of your arms, you should just look for a larger jacket or leave it on your chair when you stand up to perform during a round. If you are not wearing a jacket and your shirt is long, though, it should be tucked in and worn with a belt.

What To Wear:

1. A business suit. It’s obvious, I know, but slacks and a matching jacket, either in black, gray, or navy, is the standard dress code at speech tournaments. If you have a suit, pair it with a shirt, tie and dress shoes. Most competitors wear the same suit both days and just switch out the shirts. Girls can wear skirt suits, but in most districts there is a dress code, and you can actually be penalized if your skirt is too short. Knee length or longer, ladies.

2. Business casual. If you don’t have a suit, that’s fine – it is not required. Instead of suits, guys often wear khakis and blazers or even just shirts and ties with slacks. Girls wear classic button-down shirts with a nice skirt. Turtlenecks, sweaters, cardigans, sports coats and even vests (within reason) are generally acceptable attire. Just do your best to look professional.

3. A tie. If you’re a guy and you’re at a speech tournament, you should be wearing a tie. No exceptions, even if the only one you have on hand is covered with the Tabasco logo. Sorry.

4. Hair pulled back. If you have bangs or hair falling into your face during a round, it will distract your audience – and you! – from your act. Secure it away from your face.

5. Nice shoes. Wear dress shoes if you have them. I love cowboy boots and Chucks, but I would never wear them to a speech tournament. Just a pair of brown or black dress shoes is fine, and most people wear the same shoes on both days. Heels are good, but not necessary.

Expression is an important part of speech and debate, but you should allow the focus to remain on your words rather than your rocking outfit. Your clothes should be just another example for your audience that you actually put thought into presenting yourself well and doing your best.

I think this is the end-all-be-all of dress code rules. Every speechie who has competed for a while can tell you this is the unofficial way to dress and if you do not follow you will stick-out in a bad way.

Although, I don't think a tie is necessary. Preferred of course but I doubt you will drop rank if you are still dressed nicely and without a tie. Just saying.

Can I also add anything that is made to look distressed or torn is a no no. Runs in nylons count as well. This is not hobo-chic.

You're absolutely correct in that speech participants should adhere to these dress guidelines as strictly and as formally as possible. The highly subjective nature of judging speech events means that every aspect of presentation is crucial, including appearance.

With debaters, it depends on the region. In conservative areas where lay judging is the rule and not the exception, it's best to adhere to the same guidelines as speech events. But if you're on the national policy circuit where the judging pool is predominately fast and flow, nobody will blink if you're just wearing an untucked collared shirt and slacks. For examples, I almost never wear ties because I see them as being an unnecessary inconvenience. If it's hot out, there's no way I'm even going to consider a jacket. You can get away with it because rounds are decided on arguments and not appearances.

Anony's picture

Heels are not neccessarily required, but in my experience, they make movements (character snaps mainly) much more crisp and clean.

Really?  I never really did HI/DI, so heels in Duet and Prose (what I did compete in) only seemed to hinder me.  That's an interesting thought of heels helping with pops.  Maybe if you're not a klutz it helps as well, haha?

Anony's picture


 Request suit for debate daily!

You guys are so stupid!!! Anickin Skywalker is odviously from the planet *****. Not from ***. If i had the choise i would make star wars a must in education

Oh my gosh!!! I am so sorry i posted on the wrong website sorry

@dyea8002 - best mis-post ever! lol!

The class could be on video and have Yoda as the instructor :)

Would the the "not" section include glasses? Last year, I wore small ones and was told in the ballot to "take them off to see my face". I wear big nerdy glasses, now, so I don't have a clue if I should wear them if I don't want to repeat that episode again. (I do not wear contacts.)

@SarcasmCentral, did you get that comment frequently? If no, then I would think it was just that one judge's personal preference. Speaking as someone who has judged, glasses have never taken away from a performance for me. Then again, I'm also a glasses/contacts wearer, so I understand why a person would not want to either put in contacts at 5:30 AM, or choose to be able to see during a performance and NOT take off their glasses.

I would recommend you do whatever is most comfortable for you. Personally, even though my eyesight is not awful, I would be distracted and pulled from my performance if I did not wear my glasses/contacts in a round. I like seeing the audience. It helps me connect with them, which in turn helps me deliver a better performance. Also, if you're competing and time counts, not being able to see the hand signals puts you in the disadvantage. Honestly, I think not wearing your glasses puts you at more of a disadvantage, so I would not recommend taking them off just because of one comment.

Keep wearing your glasses and see if anybody else says anything about your glasses. Maybe that one judge was at an odd vantage point and your frames blocked your eyes. Maybe the light hit your lenses just right and the flair blinded them. Maybe that particular day you weren't using your upper face/eyes as much as you normally do so with the glasses it looked like you had "dead face." Maybe those old frames were too small and did block your face too much. Who knows?

I will caution that the frames on glasses will make your facials less "big" simply because they do cover your face. However, this is not theatre (where I would suggest removing your glasses if they are unnecessary because the distance WOULD be problematic with the frames blocking your face), and you have larger frames now. Just make sure your facials are large, but not so large you look crazy, and you should be okay.

P.S. Make sure you don't do sudden movements so your glasses stay on your face :P

I agree with your list what NOT to wear. As for me on such official meeting you need to wear something more formal. Not necessarily a suit. For women I would recommend to wear business casual - skirt and a blouse for example. [url]http://inkprofy.com/pencil-skirt-outfits/[/url] Something like these, if you don't know how looks "business casual" clothes.

@MayuYou, i think you wanted to give us a link? It is not working like that.
I like these examples. Do you have anything for men?

I don't have pictures, but with men I would stick with a basic black or grey suit, solid color shirt (or if there is a pattern, nothing too busy), tie that compliments, and dress shoes.

Maybe at smaller tournaments a guy could get away with dress pants, dress shirt, dress shoes, and a tie.

I had a remark from a another competitor about heel size saying she would prefer me wearing flats than four inch heels. Granted, I am 5'3 and wanted to wear heels so badly and these open toed pumps I felt were a bit too big on my feet. It made me feel uncomfortable. Now, it's not like I can't walk in heels rather I danced in 2 inch for show choir. But me being on the bigger side, I felt like my extra weight may have made it more difficult to wear heels. Question is if I lose that weight, could it possibly get easier?


I think you should wear whatever makes you feel more confident and the most comfortable. Personally, I would never wear heels to perform. I feel clumsy and like I can't move as well. But I have heard of some girls feeling like they move better in heels. Different strokes for different folks, you know?

Mayeb you would feel at home with 2 inch heels, like you did for show choir?

And that's kinda weird some competitor telling you what she would prefer you in. I mean, it's your feet, lol

I completely agree! It's your outfit choice, and I think you should where whatever you feel is best, within reason of course. :p

I come from a smaller state with teams that were obviously not taught how to dress when it came to tournuments. I've seen it all: pajamas, jeans and a t-shirt, and even the occasional Hawaiian shirt, lol

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