Ask the Expert: How to Style Yourself for Graduation

rachel jimenez penca poses in front of a rack of clothes and shoes
Columbia College Chicago Adjunct Professor Rachel Jimenez Penca uses her personal styling expertise to advise graduates on what to wear on their big day.

All eyes will be on the class of 2024 during their commencement ceremonies, so it’s important to be confident, comfortable, and chic. Adjunct Professor of Instruction Rachel Jimenez Penca teaches in the Fashion Studies Department and runs her own business, Rachel J Styling.

Regardless of personal style, there are some basic tips that will keep graduates looking good and feeling good as they celebrate their academic achievements with their loved ones.

Penca shares with us some of her suggestions for styling on the big day.


  • A gown will be over your outfit for much of the ceremony, so a great way to express yourself is through your shoes. Here are some tips to keep in mind to make a splash but stay comfortable while crossing the stage.
  • If you’re wearing heels, opt for a block heel. Stilettos are great, but on a day with a lot of standing and walking, your feet will end up sore. As for height, I’d recommend two-to-four-inch heel max. Three inches would be more popular, but I know some people prefer lower. Loafers are a great flat option.
  • Your shoes can really pop against a black gown! I suggest adding a pop of color that stands out.
  • Don’t be afraid to be bold! I have a pair of red cowboy boots that I’ve had for decades which would be a perfect statement piece to wear across the stage.
  • Sneakers can be a great way to show off your personality. I wore a pair to last year’s commencement ceremony, and they were a hit!
  • Dress shoes are a classic, but not always the most comfortable. Opt for a dressier sneaker with a white sole.


  • I love a jumpsuit for graduation. Opt for a bold print that stands out under the black robes. You can make it your own by changing up the belt. It’s a super comfortable option for a long day.
  • If you’re planning to wear a dress, make sure the hem is at the knee, slightly below, or full length like the jumpsuit. The gown will hit around your mid-calf, so a midi length doesn’t always look the best.
  • A skirt and top are a fun option. It’s a great way to add color and personality. I love color blocking with bright colors on the top and bottom.
  • Button downs are a great option to add a pop of color or a pattern. Both short and long sleeve options are appropriate, but I recommend wearing cotton or another light-weight material. These days can be long, so you want to stay cool and comfortable.
  • Pair your top with a nice, tailored dress pants. I would avoid wearing jeans for graduation. Grab some comfortable and fashionable slacks for your big day, and you'll be all set to shine!