But hey…why not talk fashion seriously for a second? (But just for a second. I’m no fashion blogger, by any stretch, and...well, let’s say I have been under consideration for the worst-dressed list more than once.) If you’re onstage, with a plethora of cameras aiming at you and the nation ogling at you as you muster the courage to attack a word you may have never heard before, here’s my advice: Be comfortable. Wear something that you feel good in, that you look good in, and that you feel represents you. If you want to go an extra step, make it something that will look good on camera. Even more points if it’s something that makes you feel powerful. Case in point: Paul Keaton and his vivid red sweater vest. Far more than any other finalist, his appearance directly acknowledged that he was on camera and that he intended to draw the attention of the crowd. Tangentially, although we couldn’t see it, the LeBron James jersey that Gokul Venkatachalam was sporting beneath his dress shirt exemplified this advice perfectly too. He aligned himself with one of his role models in a subtle but very significant way…and I bet he drew more than a bit of psychological power from that jersey.
Personally, when I was competing, I figured that an event like a spelling bee was a serious, important event, and dressed accordingly. Once, I wore a (clip) bowtie. Once – and never again. It was too precious. I never went full-on necktie for other bees, but neither would you have caught me wearing a casual t-shirt. From the bee, I first learned the importance of wearing something that you felt could – even if only psychologically – help you feel powerful and important. In fact, a few months before I won the National Spelling Bee in 1989, I found a great light blue dress shirt with white and mint green vertical stripes. Somehow, it resonated with me: this would be the shirt I would wear at the bee that year. As the bee approached, that thought changed: this would be the shirt I would wear when I won. And, of course, it’s the shirt you see in pictures of that day.
Back in 1988, one speller from Virginia got a cardboard crown from a combo meal at Burger King. Thinking that it might increase her chances at becoming a media darling, she wore it during the bee. Et voila. Her picture appeared the next day in USA Today. And the response from then-Scripps-Howard was decisive the very next year: No distracting clothing or accessories were to be worn during the bee. And in fact, from 1995 until 2007, Scripps went one step further, requiring all spellers to wear provided white polo shirts with the familiar logo while onstage. The dress code has since been relaxed. But in an era where social media in the form of an Entertainment Weekly blog can make one a talking point for millions of people overnight – for better or for worse – dressing to make a positive impression, especially on the national stage, is more important than it has ever been. (In other words: don’t wear tacky cardboard crowns onstage.)