Updated: May 27
Whether you're trying to make a great first impression or you want to get noticed for that promotion, here's how to master business attire.
In the last post, we covered the key concepts you need to know, the ideas behind different dress codes, and the benefits of business casual vs. business professional. In this post, we’ll dive deeper into the details so that you know exactly what to wear, and how to adapt based on the situation.
Know What to Wear: Business Professional vs. Business Casual Attire
Over the past 20 years, the definition of professional business attire has evolved significantly. In years past, you would be considered the most trustworthy, competent, and authoritative individual around if you were wearing formal business attire. However, with the global rise of social media and a huge increase in online shopping, this idea has gradually shifted.
Today, more and more people are adopting business casual attire. Many companies have begun letting their employees dress more casually, with more of an emphasis on comfort. However, maintaining a professional image remains pivotal, as it keeps you sharp and helps you stay focused. So what are the key differences? Let’s take a look.
Overview of Business Casual Attire
The lack of a universal definition for business casual attire (also known as casual professional) is one of the reasons why choosing appropriate outfits can sometimes get confusing. A business casual dress code will vary based on the company, the industry, and even where you’re located. To avoid confusion and doubt, try following these general guidelines, which tend to be safe regardless of your specific situation:
For men: Appropriate casual attire for men includes slacks or chinos, dark socks, dress shoes, and a button-down shirt. Even if polo shirts, shorts, and/or jeans are acceptable for a job position that you are looking to get, it’s best to stay away from wearing them to an interview. For tops, neutral-colored button-up shirts, collared shirts, short-sleeved button-down shirts, or sweaters are acceptable. Bottoms can be semi-formal pants, dark jeans, or slacks. And to round out the outfit, dark leather, loafers, and tie-ups are typically go-to choices for shoes.
For women: Business casual attire for women usually includes a combination of slacks, skirt, jacket, blouse, sweater, hosiery, and closed-toe shoe. Examples of acceptable tops are turtlenecks, dressy tops, elegant sleeveless shirts, casual dresses, and skirts that split at the knee. Meanwhile, acceptable bottoms include dress pants, knee-length skirts, and pencil-cut skirts. Finally, pumps, flats, stilettos, close-kitten heels, and open-toed heels shoes are best for footwear, though some companies will allow peep-toe shoes and sandals as well.
And as we mentioned in the last post, it is equally important to know what not to wear. Ripped jeans, t-shirts, flip-flops, hooded sweatshirts, sneakers, or outfits with offensive words or images all belong outside of the office.
Overview of Business Professional Attire
Business professional attire (also known as business formal) refers to a clean, crisp dress code: pressed, neat, and never wrinkled. The appearance is mostly for those who work in strict office environments, as well as for appearances in formal settings like special dinners, award ceremonies, and other similar events. Business formal typically follows the following guidelines:
For men: Formal dress code will usually involve a dark suit and tie, and it is important to ensure that you have a matching pair of pants and jacket. Wearing a black suit and a light button-down shirt is appropriate. Meanwhile, the color and tone of your tie should match your shirt and suit, and as for shoes, Oxford or loafer shoes with clear lines will do the trick. You can also opt to wear a three-piece suit, where the vest color and material should also match the jacket and slacks. You can also toss in some minimalist cufflinks, a tie clip, or a belt if you want to add a little pizzazz to your outfit. And don’t forget this cardinal rule - avoid wearing brown shoes when selecting a black suit.
For women: The right formal dress code includes dark pantsuits, a suit dress, or skirt suit, though there are instances in which a long evening dress is considered appropriate. For shoes, options include heels, formal flats, loafers, or Oxfords. You can also use minimalist jewelry to accessorize. Depending on the season, jackets may either be short-sleeved or ¾ length. Skirts should generally sit at or just above the knee, while dress shirts should never be too revealing. Tops should be just the right length, not hanging below the hem of the suit jacket or short enough to show your stomach.
While these options may seem limited, you can try out different styles if you want to have the chance to express your personality. This will go a long way in promoting comfort and boosting your confidence. However, if the function or event you are attending requires that you maintain a strictly business dress code, be sure not to deviate - you never want to be that person who is underdressed.
Dress for the Occasion
So now that you know what to wear, it’s time to put this knowledge to action. Making a good first impression is critical in any situation, and a big part of that is how you look. And that’s why it is always best to wear business professional attire for a job interview, recruiter meeting, or client meeting. Even if the organization you’re interviewing with doesn’t have a business professional dress code in the office, it’s always a good idea to play it safe. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind during the interview process is to be one notch higher than your interviewer when it comes to both your dress code and how you speak. Similarly, if you’re gunning for that promotion or trying to close a deal, you’ll want to look sharp and put your best foot forward. But ultimately, different scenarios require different dress codes, and here are some recommendations for situations you’ll likely encounter:
Recommendation: Business Professional
While some interviews specifically recommend that you wear business casual attire, especially in tech companies like Google, you are always better off overdressing than underdressing. If you weren’t given any instructions on what to wear, it’s always a safe play to go with business professional attire.
Video Conference Interview
Recommendation: Business Professional
Just like an in-person job interview, it’s important to make a great first impression on the recruiter or hiring manager who is interviewing you. Unless otherwise stated, wearing business professional attire is the move.
Recommendation: Business Casual
You might be wondering why this is a category, since the person speaking with you won’t even see you. However, studies show that one’s physical appearance can affect their state of mind, so it is always a good idea to dress the part. It could help you stay focused and locked into the interview.
Recommendation: Business Casual or Business Professional
This one’s a bit trickier, as it truly depends on the specific instance (e.g., closing a client or lunch with your boss). In most cases, your company will tell you what you should be wearing. If not, it’s not a bad idea to do some research on the venue and find out what their typical dress code is. And if all else fails, put together your best outfit, feel sharp, and get after it!
Recommendation: Check the invite
Company events can have quite a wide range of attire, from quirky Halloween parties where everyone is in costumes to formal black-tie fundraising events. Since the attire can vary so widely, it's important to check the invitation - this will tell you what to wear 99% of the time. But if not, just ask your colleagues or supervisors so that you know what to wear.
The Bottom Line
We hope that now you have a great foundation for mastering business attire and always feel that you are dressed the part. And now that you know what to wear and when, next time you revamp your wardrobe, you’ll be able to treat yourself to some fresh, sleek pieces.
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