The way people dress for work has changed in recent years. For one thing, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many office workers to work from home, and business suits were rarely dragged out of the wardrobe for a zoom meeting. Now, however, workers are returning to the office in droves, and that means a return to established dress codes.
This article explains exactly what business professional attire means and why it will not go away despite casual Fridays and pandemics. We show you how to manage a business professional wardrobe and give you examples of styles so that you can see how good you can look!
Call it superficial, but business professional attire is all about first impressions. Why? Because a business is selling products and services. For a potential customer to buy those products, they must have confidence in that company and its representatives right from the outset.
Take an accountant, for example. Who would you rather trust with your money; someone who makes the effort to dress well for you, or someone in jeans and a tee-shirt who wants to be comfortable for themselves? A well-dressed individual gives the impression that they care about details, but, more importantly, they care about you.
There is another more scientific reason for business professional attire, and that is an effect called “enclothed cognition,” which means that clothing influences performance. This research shows that people are more productive when they dress the part.
An experiment by Adam Glinsky of Columbia Business School found that participants who wore a doctor’s coat scored higher on attention tests than participants who wore a painter’s coat. The participants felt more confident in the doctor’s coat and performed better.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. You don’t want to show up for a job interview for a farm manager or construction worker in a business suit. That would be overkill and could give the impression that you don’t understand the practicalities of the job.
Different companies within sectors also have different dress codes, and some embrace the casual look. Silicon Valley companies are known for their hoodie-clad coders sipping Starbucks in communal spaces. Apple, Google, Quicken Loans all have casual dress codes, and other big names like JP Morgan, IBM, BlackRock, and Goldman Sachs have relaxed dress codes in order to attract talented millennials in a tight labor market.
That said, depending on the industry, business professional attire is a must for most interviews and job fairs because professional dress shows that the candidate understands the importance of the customer. In short, the way that you dress shows that you care.
Think of business professional as the top end of office wear. For men, that means a suit, 0perhaps with pinstripes, and a tie. Dress pants and a sport coat or blazer also would work. For women, business professional can mean a suit, but there is more leeway, and a dress and blouse without a blazer is acceptable.
There is not much room for trends with this dress code. Men might be able to sustain a professional look yet break the mold with a colorful sock or two, and women might sport a printed blouse, but that’s about it.
The professional dress code guidelines can get complex, however, because each office will have its own often unwritten rules. The best way to gauge how you should dress is to look at your peers and mirror them.
Some offices might treat Friday as “business casual,” but don’t get too excited and slip on your flip-flops. You can certainly ditch the suit or the jacket, and ladies could wear a brighter top, for example, but jeans or a t-shirt would still be a no-no in most companies.
If an office claims to be “business casual” all the time, no suits are required, but you will still be expected to dress in dark pants or khakis, collared shirts, and maybe a blazer.
For women, a dress or tailored separates with a blouse and a cardigan are fine. If wearing a knee-length skirt, nylons or tights are not necessary, particularly in the summer, but you can wear them if you prefer. Again, dark colors are best for jackets and separates, matched with professional shoes, and a shirt or blouse should be a light color and neatly tucked in. Accessories, jewelry, and makeup should not be distracting in business casual wear contexts.
In contrast, an office might habitually dress down and allow jeans—a print shop or tech company, for example. Here, jeans that are not ripped and a top that is clean and relatively fresh are acceptable. A pair of khaki pants would probably be even better worn with a solid color polo shirt or even a button-down shirt. Sweaters are fine.
Business Casual for Women, Source: Indeed, 2021
Business Casual for Men, Source: Indeed, 2021
The other end of the spectrum is business formal attire. This is a step above business professional and is the highest level of attire. Business formal is appropriate for formal settings, such as award ceremonies and black-tie dinners. For men, business formal absolutely calls for a suit, a long-sleeved shirt, a tie, dress socks, even a three-piece suit with cufflinks. There is no room for bright colors—neutral colors and dark tones work.
Business Formal for Women and Men, Source: Indeed, 2021
Each office environment and company will differ, but here are some general guidelines to follow for men and women.
Dark-colored or neutral suits
Light pastel, white, or cream button-down dress shirts
Colored socks are fine, but no white socks
Leather shoes, such as an oxford or loafer
Brown shoes with brown or dark olive, and navy blue suits. Black shoes with black or grey suits. Black suits go with black shoes. Grey suits usually go with black shoes.
A business suit is a good idea
Oxford-style blouses that are not too low cut or billowy
A professional dress that comes to the knee or lower. It should be so conservative that you would only wear it to the office
Most business professional offices require hosiery
Shoes with a closed-toed shoe and modest heel
Jewelry and makeup should not be distracting
Business Professional for Women and Men, Source: Indeed, 2021
For gender-neutral business professional dressing, pantsuits are an option for everyone, as are loafers or oxfords.
Business Professional for Non-binary, Source: Indeed, 2021
Expert Tip: If your job requires business professional attire, this is one other thing that you must budget for and plan. Consider using a tailor, and have a favorite retailer so that you can shop quickly and regularly once you know your sizing. Update your wardrobe periodically so that you don’t end up looking shabby, and dry clean suits and other items. Most importantly, don’t ruin a good look by ignoring important details like your hygiene, hair, and nails.
Business professional attire is very much still a thing. It will add to your day-to-day planning and budgeting, but the results will be confidence, better productivity, and a sense of belonging to your team.