Reader Request: Clothing at a Distance

How to assemble outfits that look great at a distance - for speeches, presentations, and the like!

Jori sent this question via e-mail:

Recently at an airport I noticed a woman walking toward me from some distance away wearing what appeared to be an odd combination of colors. But when she got closer I could see her dress was not actually a solid color but rather had a very detailed print that wasn’t evident from far away. There were colors in the print that actually matched other parts of her outfit, so up close she seemed very put together. So: I was wondering if you had any thoughts about how to dress if you’re going to be seen from a distance – for example, anyone who gives presentations in a large room. (And also how to “test” how you will look from a distance, since most of us stand fairly close to our mirrors when we get dressed in the morning.)

I get a little panicky when I know I’m going to be on-camera or speaking to a group because there are lots of parameters in my head for what I should and shouldn’t wear. (The outfit shown above was worn to a speaking engagement several years ago, and I felt like it actually worked.) And although I eschew style rules overall, I’ve learned that these ones are worth noting because they can impact how you appear to observers. And not just from a taste perspective. If you wear the wrong thing to a photoshoot, you may look ill or like you’re vibrating or any number of other undesirable and easily avoidable things. Here’s what I consider when dressing to be seen at a distance:


Many people make a practice of ALWAYS keeping their most flattering colors closest to their faces. And although some of the subtleties of color/complexion interplay will be lost if you’re 20 feet from an observer, it’s a good idea to reach for your best colors anyway. Black and white are very, very few people’s best colors, so do try to select an actual color, if possible.


From afar, contrast will be amplified. So if you’re wearing a white blouse and black skirt, where they meet will become a natural focal point for those observing you from a distance. Consider this, and place points of contrast, hems, and breaks where you want the eye to rest. (Assuming your whole figure will be seen, not obscured by a podium or similar.)


Small, regular patterns can wreak havoc under certain photographic circumstances, and may look blurred or as if they’re vibrating if seen from a distance under certain lights. Larger patterns can work, but use them sparingly. Solids will be less distracting to audience members. Consider using jewelry and accessories as accents instead.

The only way I know of to “test” how you look from a distance is to get help. Ask a friend to stand a half-block away and observe your outfit. Have someone take your photo from a ways off. Most people don’t have extra-long hallways with full-length mirrors at the end, so to get a true picture of how you look from afar, you’ll need to enlist the air of a trusted buddy!

The woman in Jori’s example probably hadn’t gone to such lengths. And that’s fine. On most days, most of us WON’T be on-camera or speaking to a crowd of hundreds from a raised, lit podium. But when and if you do, consider color, contrast, and pattern when you get dressed.

Originally posted 2013-01-16 06:45:28.

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18 Responses to “Reader Request: Clothing at a Distance”

    • Aibrean

      I came here to ask the same question, but Sal’s answer jogged my memory, so I’ll pipe in!

      Marshalls always seems to have at least one style of Calvin Klein dress in this signature red shade. I’ve never found one that hit above the knee though. That’s a keeper, for sure!

  1. Laurie Olson Williams

    In the theatre, we used what a professor of mine referred to as the “30 foot squint” — if you squint (or in my case, take my glasses off) enough to blur your vision a bit, you can get an idea of what something is going look like from a distance. We used it for determining if a detail would “read” or would need help, or if a costume was distressed enough/needed more paint, that kind of thing. It will definitely help you determine if your patterned clothing is going to read or not, and how the contrast points of your outfit will appear from a distance.

    The only other tip I can offer is if you will be speaking on an actual stage in an auditorium, PLEASE do not wear black! Most theatrical curtains are black, and you will be a floating head/appendages to the folks in the back! ;D Really, wear something that will contrast a bit.

    • LinB

      Yep. Details of costume for the stage need to be much larger than you would find in “real life.” Solids are usually a better bet than a print, unless it is a huge print. Keep in mind that gestures also need to be “larger than life” and, usually, slower than you’d normally move. Just as your amplified speech needs to be a bit slow for a speech so that someone in the back row can hear you more clearly, your movements need to be a bit slow to amplify them so that someone in the back row can see you more clearly.

      • heather

        My costume design teacher taught us that pattern will add texture, so you can use it even if you can’t see the pattern, as a textured piece. Just use it as you would a solid. (But do avoid stripes on camera- they do vibrate!)

  2. D

    I used to do a lot of public speaking when I worked for the new student orientation group at my college. Sadly, I have no tips to offer, but after reading this, I am glad that our uniform was what it was! I used to hate our solid red or navy blue polo shirts, but it seems like they may have saved us from looking strange from a distance.

    I also agree with other commenters here, that dress looks fabulous on you!

  3. Ericka

    Great post Sal. I definitely agree about color and silhouette. I give a fair number of lectures (teaching, education, speaking to groups), and I definitely reach for my good colors. That having been said, the most important thing for me is to feel fabulous and confident. And if that particularly day, a black dress does that, I am going for it. Yesterday I wore a small print peplum top to give a lecture (this one:; maybe not the best choice by “the rules” but I felt fantastic and I knocked the lecture out of the park (if I do say so myself). So while dressing for the perception of the audience is important to me, even more important is how it makes me feel.

  4. A.S.

    Ahem–pure white is the best choice for very, very few WHITE people, maybe!

    • heather

      I agree many women of color look amazing in pure white. However, pure white and true tomato red are very difficult for lighting designers- the colors tend to glow or turn neon under stage lighting. (Most white you see on a stage is actually ivory)

  5. Christine

    Great question and great answer! When I attended the MA Conference for Women last month, I noticed a theme among the female speakers, regardless of age, ethnicity, or build:

    – Professionally styled hair
    – Jacket or blazer to structure the upper body
    – STATEMENT NECKLACES! Except Arianna Huffington, who wore statement earrings instead.

    This type of styling seemed to translate well whether meeting the person face to face or viewing her on the jumbotron from the back of the convention center.


  6. Minneapolis Mom

    As someone who has been a pastor and works with a lot of pastors, here’s my tips for public speaking clothes:

    – Solids generally work much better than any kind of print from a distance
    – Pay extreme attention to how your clothes fit you! If it is sagging or tugging, it can be visible from a surprising distance and is very distracting to a viewer. If I am in an audience and I notice the speaker’s clothes have a major fit problem it totally grabs my attention.
    – If modesty is an issue for you, be aware that sitting at an elevated level on a stage can make skirts seem shorter or having a camera view you from above can make shirts seem lower cut.

    Otherwise, be you and have fun!

    • Ginger

      I think the fit advice is very good. Sec. Clinton, who is a classic pear-shaped woman, always has jackets that fit across the hips. They may skim but they don’t pull.

  7. Harriet

    I have been videorecording myself lately playing the piano and am pretty much horrified by what I look like — more or less like a barrel with a weak-chinned head on top with messy hair. Maybe I don’t look quite that bad from a distance, but still — and I have no idea how to make myself look nicer. That profile view seems to be especially unflattering. There are also a couple of videos and related stills of me while playing floating around the ‘net that make me cringe. So — no tips to offer, but I would be happy to get some!

  8. Roberta

    I’ve done a lot of public speaking, and I always wear solid colors, or at least recognize that all but the largest prints (which I wouldn’t wear anyway) will look like solids from any distance. I think dark colors all run together and you look like a muddy blob. I like pink or yellow because they aren’t dark, but also (as noted above) aren’t white. Also keep in mind the size of your accessories. A big (and I mean 4 inches across) brooch or sizeable bracelet will be attractive from a distance. However, really big earrings tend to move around and be distracting so close to the speaker’s mouth. Wear heels if possible, you focus a bit on your balance and look more poised that way. Like a dancer on pointe.

    The best advice I ever got was to consciously look at both the right and left side of the audience. Most people speak in one direction, probably matching whether they are left or right-handed. Videotape yourself – horrifying but very useful!

  9. AnnR

    The blog, “The Style of Politics” covers what to wear for cameras. Even if you aren’t a politician it’s useful.

  10. Diana

    I don’t appear on camera or anything like that, but I do photograph my outfits with some regularity. Here’s a tip if you want to see how your outfit looks from a distance but don’t have the physical space to do it. Take a photo (you can just take a photo in your mirror if you want; I use my self timer from around 8 feet away), then look at it in different sizes on your computer (or just look at the little image on your camera). A small full-length photo will approximate what someone from further away will see.

  11. Judy

    Here’s an idea: When quilters want to know what their quilt will look like from a distance, they view the quilt through a “peep hole” like what you look through to see someone at your front door. You can buy the peep hole at any home improvement store, and keep one close to your full length mirror!