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What to Wear to a Graduation


Key Takeaways

  • Consider the weather and setting.
  • You can be appropriately dressed and comfortable at the same time.
  • It’s better to overdress than underdress.

When dressing to attend a college or high school graduation ceremony, keep in mind that you’re going to see graduates receive degrees or diplomas and other recognition after major investments of time and energy. It’s a celebratory but serious occasion, and you want to show up appropriately attired. 

That generally means a more polished look elevated above ordinary streetwear, such as professional or at least business casual pieces – avoiding items like jeans, shorts and sneakers. 

Context is important, so consider the event’s setting, season, cultural norms and any traditions the particular school may have as you assemble your outfit. 

Setting and Season 

Dress for the season: the weather is typically warmer in the spring, when most graduations are held, though it may be on the cool side. The location and setting of the graduation ceremony can also be a factor in what you wear. Theaters and basketball arenas have different considerations, as do football fields, gardens and other outdoor venues. 

Clothes made of medium- or light-weight fabrics are more comfortable in stadium bleachers under a sweltering sun, for example, while weightier textiles or more layers may feel better in an air-conditioned theater. 

The idea is to look appropriate and also be comfortable, understanding that comfort is a function of quality, season-appropriate fabrics and proper fit.

Cultural Norms and School Traditions 

Despite a continuing trend toward more-relaxed dressing in most settings, graduations in the U.S. are still a time for business attire or at least smart business casual. This shows respect for the gravity of the event as an educational and personal milestone marked by formal gowns for graduates and – at the college level – similarly formal academic regalia for faculty and administrators. 

Though typically less formal than college commencements, high school graduations are still on the dressier side, given graduates’ traditional caps and gowns and the professional attire of administrators. 

Although it’s uncommon, some schools, such as private or more affluent schools – prep schools, military academies and Ivy League institutions – may have even more formal dress norms or traditions. These are typically unwritten and may require some proactive questioning, but the expectation is a more elevated, polished look. It wouldn’t hurt to reach out to a school if you suspect this might be the case. 

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Better to overdress than underdress.

What Not to Wear to a Graduation 

Here are some examples of looks that are too casual to wear when attending a graduation ceremony:

  • Jeans
  • Shorts
  • T-shirts
  • Tank tops
  • Athletic wear
  • Leisure wear
  • Sneakers
  • Flip-flops

Sample Graduation Outfits 

Women

Business suit featuring a jacket over pants or a skirt 

Dress with or without a complementing jacket 

Skirt with a sweater twinset or blouse 

A dress in a neutral, print, or fashion color 

Graduation Fashion (Women)

Men 

Suit and dress shirt with or without a tie 

Sport coat or blazer with dress shirt and slacks 

Sweater with shirt, necktie, and dress slacks 

Dress khakis with a dress shirt and sport coat or blazer 

Graduation Fashion (Men)

What Should the Graduates Wear?

Although graduates will be seen in robes, it still matters what they wear underneath. The key is to not overdress, because those robes tend to be notoriously warm.

Winning options for women are a dress, jumpsuit, skirt and blouse, or a nice top over dress slacks. High hemlines and plunging necklines can be saved for a less serious occasion. Sandals are fine – go for strappy heels or a flat gladiator or bejeweled style rather than flip-flops.

For men, dress pants, a long-sleeve dress shirt and a dress shoe are easy and perfectly appropriate. A necktie can be a nice addition. If you opt for a suit, have someone hold your jacket until you’re out of the robe so you’ll be more comfortable. Skip polo shirts, luxury-style T-shirts (because it’s still a T-shirt), sneakers, lug-soled shoes like work boots and sockless looks.

FAQ

What should children wear?

Think in terms of outfits that mirror what parents are wearing. Although kids are often impatient with dressier outfits, especially young children, they can probably survive being dressed to impress for a few hours. Skirts and dresses are appropriate for girls, as are jumpsuits, which can be elevated with a cute sweater or jacket. Meanwhile, difficulty getting boys in suits has made room for a suitable alternative – slacks and a button-up shirt and either a jacket or tie. 

Are some graduations dressier than others?

Yes. Generally, college commencements are more formal than high school graduations, which means something for attire. Many colleges and larger universities have multiple graduation ceremonies that vary in size, particularly for doctorate and other advanced degree programs such as medical and law schools. The smaller the gathering and the higher the credential earned, the more you’re better off dressing up. 

If the ceremony is outdoors, a hat can provide protection from a blazing sun. Just make sure it’s not so large that it obstructs the view of guests sitting near you. A man wearing a hat to a graduation ceremony should remove it if he goes indoors.

What about wearing school colors or school-branded clothing?

Either is a great way to honor the institution while honoring the graduates. Branded choices are plentiful, with occasion-appropriate options ranging from a lapel pin to a scarf or crested blazer.

School colors may be easier. For example, if the school colors are navy and white, think navy suit and white shirt – or vice versa – or a blue or white dress with a scarf or purse and shoes the other color. A garment that incorporates both colors can be a tasteful, understated look.

Caution: Exercise restraint. You don’t want to look like a walking rack of gift shop merchandise or someone who got splashed with two buckets of paint.
 



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