TV appearances are exciting, but they have a major downside: people can see you.
This is good, because it means the brand you are representing (yourself, or an organisation) is getting exposure. But if you’re not prepared for the fact that people can see everything about you – including your clothes – then you can end up inadvertently distracting from your message.
Hence, over the past three years, as I’ve increasingly done tv interviews on behalf of Schools Week I’ve gathered together some handy tips for avoiding fashion faux pas and putting viewers at easy.
A small caveat: I get this may seem vain. Not caring how you look is liberating and cheaper. But many viewers will care how you look regardless of your feelings about fashion. Those viewers will then end up distracted by outfits that don’t quite work and stop listening to your message because they are wondering who told you beige was flattering. So, for everyone’s sake, whether vain or not, I suggest you care at least a little about how you look if you’re appearing on people’s telly screens.
Also, what I’m writing here counts for radio broadcasts too. Many media outlets are multi-channel, and will have cameras in studios, or expect to take pics of you for twitter, or want you also to appear on a tv news channel. Hence, if you’re going in a building with producers, follow these rules!
So, if you are going on television/radio, what should you wear?
Anyone who tells you the only rule is that you must feel comfortable is lying. You can’t even rely on the rule that if an outfit looks nice in real life then it’ll look nice on telly.
The first time I went on the news I almost didn’t accept the invite because I was wearing a sweatshirt with a tuxedo jacket which, in the office, seen as a full outfit, was very cool – ironically combining sports and elite formal clothing with little accessories (belts, shoes) to pull it off. Shh, it was great.
On camera, where you could only see me from waist up, it was weird. Also, my hair was greasy. And my make-up was old and thin.
I knew it was going to film horribly and I was correct. (see right)
But the actual rule number 1 is: never turn down television just because you are wearing rubbish clothes. If your hair is a mess and your clothes don’t match, STILL GO ON. But, if you have any chance of changing clothes before you get there, do.
What to wear if you have the time?
What you want is one major item that is at least colourful (not black or white, or beige, or cream). Do not take this to mean you should wear LOADS of colours. One sensible but brightly coloured item is what you want. A coloured jacket. A coloured tie. A coloured shirt. ONE OF THOSE.
Patterns are possible, and good, but can be tricky (see below), so for the main tip I’d say pick one strong colour and use it with other neutrals.
But, frankly, if you want my NUMBER ONE killer tip…
WEAR NAVY BLUE. If in doubt, get the navy out. There is a reason why male politicians almost universally wear navy blue these days, and it’s not because they follow fashion fads. Navy comes across warmer on television. It’s not as harsh against the skin, and it can more easily mix with other colours. Wear a yellow shirt with a black suit and you look like a bumblebee. Wear a yellow shirt with a navy suit, and you’re the forefront of Italian chic. Bellisimo!
My second tip is WEAR SOMETHING WITH POCKETS. This is less of a worry for men. Most of your clothes come with pockets, and you have no idea what a privilege that is. Women’s clothes rarely come with usable pockets. At best you might have a centimetre of fake pocket on a jacket or a pair of trousers. But if you’re going on telly then you’re likely going to have a microphone pack on your person which is about the size of an old-school walkman. If you’re wearing a glam shift dress that sucks you in and makes you look like a shapely goddess that might be good for your self-confidence, but it’s going to be super awks when you’re handed a microphone pack and you’ve nothing to hook it to. At the very least, if you must wear a shift dress, wear a belt so you can latch it to that. In an ideal world, however, wear something with substantial pockets. (A jacket over the shift dress can work well for this – just make sure the pockets are deep).
My THIRD tip is THINK ABOUT YOUR NECK. This goes for men as much as for women. From about the age of 35, no-one’s neck is their best asset. So you need to think about how you are going to deal with it, because it’s right underneath your face, which is where the camera is pointing. Men typically cover theirs with a tie. That’s great, but ties can go wrong. Tie it too tightly or too loosely and you’re going to look like you’re at school. Too much pattern will distract the audience. Too dull and it’s going to look like you’re going to a funeral. And, for heaven’s sake, AVOID TWO-TONE TIES. (Those are the ones which appear to change shade depending on the angle you are looking at them). If you wear two-tone then half the audience are going to be busy crossing their eyes trying to work out if there’s a magic eye pattern around your neck rather than listening to what you are saying.
Women have a harder time with the neck problem. Theresa May has been a genius on this, employing what I call the ‘Harriet Harman’ principles of fancy (often chunky) jewellery OR a scarf OR a stand-up collar (on your jacket, shirt, or polo neck). May is also queen of the jazzy asymmetrical necklined outfit. Andrea Ledsom is also good on this. (By the way, if you want a guru of women’s political fashion, you can’t go wrong with Harriet Harman: she gives great suit). Remember: what you want is ONE of those things – not loads. No one needs to wear a polo neck, a necklace AND a scarf. I know this because I’ve made that mistake. You’ll be overly hot and you’ll go pink on screen. Just cover your neck – with ONE.
My fourth tip is: DO NOT FORGET ABOUT SHOES. Most of the time on TV, no one will see your shoes. But if you do Channel 4 news, or Newsnight, or any other ’round table’ discussion, then cameras often pan back and show your shoes. Hence, something that matches your outfit is helpful. At the very least it needs to match the genre of what you are wearing. Smart suits need smart shoes. A streamlined outfit needs streamlined shoes. NEVER WEAR TRAINERS. You are not in PE class. Do not wear heels you cannot walk in. Copy that for overly tight skirts. Producers need you to take your seat quickly and quietly, often while a short video is playing. No one is going to be chuffed if you’re clomping like an elephant and shuffling like Morticia Adams. Finally, always remember to check for labels on the soles of your shoes. Again, this is one I’ve forgotten and happily informed the world that my shoes were £35 from Next. Bargain marketing for the retailer; not so good for keeping people focused on my message.
All of the points so far work for most people. Here are a couple of extra bits which are more specific:
Clothes which don’t move much are a good thing. As trainee teachers we were told you should be able to ‘reach up to the blackboard’ and’ pick litter off the floor’ without any part of your clothing coming untucked or hitching up. It’s a pretty good tv rule too. Once you’ve got your outfit on, reach up high, then bend down to feign picking something off the floor. If your outfit doesn’t move, it’s going to feel comfy on telly, and you won’t have to worry about it. If it does, change it. Or start buckling it down: belts, pins, brooches, buttons, whatever you need to do. Honestly, when you’re worried that Emily Maitlis is going to start asking you difficult questions, you don’t want to have to be pulling your skirt towards your knees. Also, check out how your outfit moves when you sit down. Men: some trousers have a terrible tendency to bubble up around your groin. It’s not a good look! (Nope, it’s not). Women: shirt buttons have a tendency to gape when we sit. Do a quick sitting-check. If anything gapes or bubbles, change the clothes.
Bright colours are great … as long as you are not delivering bad news. Wearing bright clothes is good. They look great, you stand out, they attract attention. BUT, you cannot always wear them. Last year I was invited onto Newsnight to discuss why free lunches for all children in primary schools is not a great policy. I was literally going to say that we shouldn’t feed children. (I know, I’m awful; except I’m not, as explained here). That same day Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, was also doing lots of media and she was wearing a bright lime green jacket. Picking my wardrobe for the interview, it struck me that if I wore a bright pink or yellow jacket (as I usually do) then we were going to look like the buffet at a 7 year-old’s birthday party. Also, how can you say you don’t think you should feed children while wearing a bright pink jacket? If you’re going to deliver bad news then you need a sombre outfit that shows confidence, but not arrogance. Smart, forceful, but not flashy. Hence, I wore a navy blue jacket with white piping. The piping gives authority (Amber Rudd wore lots of it during the election), because it outlines form and so makes you seem more present, but doesn’t do it in a flashy way. The jacket was also devoid of fancy buttons or jewels or anything that says I AM POSH AND HATE CHILDREN. (I know, I know, but read the piece, honestly, there are good reasons for not implementing that policy).
Finally, and because some douche always asks, I’m going to address the whole ‘who cares anyway, isn’t it your opinions that matter’ thing.
Frankly, the answer is that lots of people care about how things look. It has an evolutionary basis; it’s about scanning for clues, it’s about how we determine authenticity, and it’s about basic science. (Some patterns, for example, cause havoc with TV technology and that’s when you get that whizzy effect on the clothing).
Good clothing on TV is not about looking beautiful. It’s simply about not distracting viewers from the central message you are delivering (which is what our brain is wired to detect). Hence, while you don’t want to look mismatched, you also don’t want to look over-done. Turning up in a glitzy jacket with shoulder pads and a ballgown is unlikely to be useful for your average performance on BBC South. A tidy shift dress, with a belt, and bright jacket with pockets will work better. Stick a chunky necklace around your neck and boom, you’re done.
BUT – and I say this with real, genuine seriousness – no matter what your clothes are like never ever turn down telly because of them. I have appeared on telly looking dreadful. The world coped. Women in particular fall prey to the idea that if their hair isn’t perfect they can’t go in front of a camera. That’s daft. I can’t think of a single man who would turn down an opportunity to go on telly because of his hair. So don’t let what I’ve said here control if you do something. But, when you get the chance, use it to look the most congruous version of your fabulous self.