BY MEHAK SHARMA

At tournaments, the easiest way to find the way to the prep room or the student lounge is by following the sea of penguins-- in other words, the suit-clad, laptop bag-toting swarm of students. However, aside from this benefit, the formal attire expected of competitors at debate tournaments serves no real purpose.

Many argue that donning a suit lends credibility to a debater and ensures a formal tone throughout the round. In reality, what makes a debater truly credible is the quality of his or her argumentation. After all, the ability to put forth innovative content is what drives success and reward in almost every field; content drives the political system, business, and the economy. The notion of “dress for success!” places the marketing of a product before its creation. Subsequently, putting anything less than a primary focus on content is not a recipe for success in the real world.

Overriding the importance of content, debate is not an election campaign, workplace, courtroom, or job interview - first and foremost, it is an educational competition. Judges should be evaluating the quality of competitors’ speeches because that is what this activity places into comparison. Debate is a great platform for students to learn vital intellectual skills, such as decision-making, cost-benefit analysis, critical thinking, research and argumentative writing, and extemporaneous speaking. Debate is a sub-optimal platform for students to learn how to dress for success, because the judge's ballot is most educationally valuable to debaters when it exclusively evaluates the quality of argumentation and leaves extrinsic issues out of consideration.

Besides, there are countless other platforms for students to learn how to dress formally for certain situations-- leave fashion advice and business formal tips to the DECA or FBLA Clubs. Debaters have more important things to worry about and, more importantly, to learn about. When judges let their personal biases about how debaters are supposed to look interfere with their evaluations of the comparative quality of the speeches, the competitive bar for every competitor is arbitrarily lowered by a tangential factor.

In fact, the expectation of formal attire at tournaments becomes detrimental to individual competitors when looking at the situation from a financial standpoint: simply put, the formal attire needed for multiple-day tournaments is not affordable for everyone. Debate, as an extracurricular activity typically funded by school teams rather than individuals, possesses the ability to help break down socioeconomic barriers; however, holding strict standards of what is debate-appropriate attire limits debate’s ability to access students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As a community that highly values unique perspectives and narratives, it seems contradictory for us to enforce a standard based on classism and elitism, in the process disincentivizing an entire class of people from participating-- and giving judges an excuse to let their own preconceived notions of what clothing is most debate-appropriate affect their formal evaluation of the round. As debaters, it seems hypocritical for us to run critical arguments against policies and rhetoric that otherize those in poverty while espousing a power structure that is inherently responsible for doing the same thing. It is in our best interests to prevent discrimination on any basis, including clothing, in order to promote socioeconomic diversity within the debate community. 

Obviously, there are some boundaries as to what clothing is appropriate at tournaments. But have faith in debaters: we are reasonable people. Allow us to exercise our own judgement. Several tournaments, such as the 6x4 Invitational, the Notre Dame Warm-Up, and some college tournaments, have explicitly allowed casual dress. As expected, these tournaments ran just as smoothly as they would have if competitors had worn more formal attire, the only difference being that debaters were likely more comfortable.

This formal “dress code” is not formally mandated by most tournaments, but it is implied. Obviously, this has a lot to do with the judging pool. Many judges, especially those not very experienced in debate, tend to hold presentation skills, including clothing, over or equal to content. The only solution to this is a community-wide resolution to reject the expectation for formal attire at debate tournaments.

In judging instructions, for example, tournament directors can and should include that the debaters’ attire, unless it is obscene or offensive, should have no impact on the judge’s perception of the debaters. At its core, this issue is a matter of letting go of old traditions. Expecting formal attire at tournaments may have been a reasonable idea in the days of yore, but it is clear now that it has become completely unnecessary. By and large, the debate community is no longer a rich white boys’ club, and tournaments are no longer places where snooty, pretentious teenagers go to rehash old ideas. The community is evolving, its ideas are evolving, and it is time for its expectations to evolve as well.

Casual dress is the way to go.


Mehak Sharma is one of POI's Northern California correspondents, and debates for Prospect High School.