Determining the Level of Formality of Your Workplace
Always dress to match the workplace setting. Some workplaces will provide a written dress code outlining specifically what is appropriate and what is not. For others, you may have to judge based on what others there are wearing.
Formal Business attire is typically the dress code used for high-profile jobs: government officials, managing workers, lawyers, and so on. It is also for businesses which cultivate formality, such as credit unions. Be aware some businesses dress formally most days, but have casual Friday or will otherwise relax the rules for certain reasons or occasions (such as a walk-a-thon, fundraiser, or if the air conditioning breaks down).
Business casual is the term often used for less formal (but not informal) office environments. (See below for a more in-depth discussion on what business casual means) .Be aware that this varies by culture, region, and profession. Sometimes business casual offices will become business formal for important occasions, such as a press conference, a high-profile visitor arriving, or an important seminar.
Black tie is typically only used only for very specific and special events, (such as awards dinners, formal banquets, or galas.) These typically require a tuxedo for men and an evening gown for women.
Typically, the higher paying the position, the higher your rank, the more professionally your office clothing should be. (However, note this is not universal–the CEO of a software company may dress far less formally than an intern at a law firm!)
Some jobs have a specific uniform. For instance, a chef, nurse, life guard, judge, or police officer. This is a professional dress code, but usually this needs very little further discussion.
Know your Office Culture. Making professional dress even more confusing is the fact that types of work environment make a big difference in what one wears. Although you are usually fine following guidelines as discussed, realize that workplaces may encourage a certain look that goes beyond simple Office Formal or Business Casual definitions. This usually has to do with what the company makes, sells, or provides.
An African aid organization, for instance, may encourage people to dress in clothes made in Africa and sold on its website in order to promote awareness and fair trade.
The athletic department of a university may be much more accepting of athletic clothing such as running shoes.
Highly artistic or creative workplaces may allow a lot more leeway in the way of dress. A fashion-based office may have much different expectations of dress than an accounting firm.
Factor in the season–sometimes. Professional dress code in much of the world has some seasonality, based partially on the weather but also on seasonal styles. But be aware that some regions do not really have changes in clothing based on seasons. (Such as the tropics). But for areas with clothing seasons, many areas the following rules of thumb apply:
Linen, seersucker, and madras cloth tend to be appropriate for summer only.
Wool clothing tends to be for fall and winter only.
In America, an old saying is no white after Labor Day…which used to refer to white linen fabrics used a lot in summer dresses rather than absolutely no white whatsoever. This is a very outdated rule. Feel free to brazenly wear a white shirt in the office in winter.
Layers of appropriate clothing can help negotiate in-between seasons, when temperatures can fluctuate. For instance, a cardigan can be useful coming into work on a crisp fall day, and removed later when it warms up. A pair of warm leggings can allow you to wear skirts comfortably in winter.
Keep in mind that the amount of visible skin allowable will be slightly different in business settings. What is acceptable in one culture may be unacceptable in another. For instance, what is fine for a women in France may be too revealing in Qatar.
If you choose to, remove layers of clothing, make sure you are in no way being revealing or inappropriate about the skin you choose to show. If you are wearing a camisole under a blazer, and you are not supposed to have a sleeveless shirt, you may be out of luck.
Know what colors to wear. No color is completely off limits but it is more formal and professional stick mainly with a neutral color palette. Formal business suits for both men and women tend to be black, brown, gray, tan, or navy blue. Shirts tend to be lighter in color, with white, off-white, and light shades of colors.
This limited color palette may sound boring and dull at first. However, it also can create a wardrobe that allows for many items to interchange easily. Basing a wardrobe around black, white, and khaki will assure that everything goes with just about everything.
Pops of color with accessories such as ties, shoes, and scarves are typically fine, but, it is safer to go with subtle rather than bright and bold.
Multi-colored shirts can be acceptable, such as a classic striped Oxford-style shirt.
These guidelines are for people who need to make their dress more professional. Brighter and more varied colors can be entirely appropriate, depending on the occupation, and the overall appearance of the outfit. But if you are unsure or inexperienced, select conservative colors–they are perennial office clothes favorites because they always look right.
Pay attention to those around you. If you are unsure exactly how formal or casually to dress, try looking at the clothing choices of those in your profession, at your office, or attending the same event as you.
In general, it is better to be slightly overdressed than it is to be under-dressed.
If you are not able to get a good glimpse or have a chat with someone in your field, try searching images on the internet for people in similar positions in the company or last year’s event. Pay attention to the appearance of people in these images, and dress accordingly.
Be careful of events that may require a dramatic wardrobe change. For instance, at a conference, you may be required to wear suits and ties for the presentation. At the poolside cocktail receptions afterwards, swimsuits, Hawaiian shirts, and flip-flops are the garb of choice.
Remember good grooming. A great outfit will only get you so far. If you are lacking personal hygiene or have a bad haircut, you will not look professional. Make sure that you treat your entire appearance, (including hair, skin, and hygiene), with the same professional care as you do with your clothing.
Shower. How often varies with culture, weather, and activity level. In most of America, at least every other day.
Make sure your hair is tidy and well-groomed.
Facial hair (if any) should be trimmed and tidy. Stubble is not generally acceptable. unibrow eyebrows or very heavy eyebrows are often considered unattractive in many areas.
For women, legs should either be shaved or bare legs covered.
Good oral hygiene matters. Be sure your breath has no noticeable odor. This is particularly important if you smoke or eat pungent food.
Makeup for women should generally be restrained, according to culture.
Dressing Business Formal
Know that formal business attire is tailored, conservative clothing. Although fashion changes the little details, the essential core of formal office attire has really not changed much in decades. Dressing business formal is in some ways easier than in business casual, because the parameters are a lot narrower and well-defined. Both genders are typically expected to wear suits, typically in neutral colors (as described above). In general, men and women wear the following:
For men: Formal suit, dress shirt, dress shoes, tie. Sometimes dressy slacks and sport coat are acceptable alternatives for a business suit. Often a shirt without an outer garment is acceptable.
For women: business suit with skirt, blazer, blouse, dress shoes. Pants are also acceptable. A, conservative dress may be substituted for a suit.
Pick your strong suit. Suits should be tailored for fit. Solid colors or pinstripes, and in good condition. Skirt suits should be knee-length and not too tight.
Choose the right tops. Shirts should be typically solid or pinstriped, tailored for fit, laundered, and ironed if required.
Long sleeves are always more formal.
Short sleeves are typically acceptable for spring and summer. However, some workplaces and cultures frown on bare arms.
Women typically should steer away from sleeveless shirts if unsure if they are accepted or not. In some regions sleeveless shirts (but not one with straps, such as halter tops) are considered perfectly acceptable. In others, they are not considered appropriate. Tank tops, camisoles, tube tops, strapless tops amd spaghetti strap tops are not office formal clothing.
Men should match shirt to tie.
Women have to be extra careful in the cut and fit of office tops. Put bluntly, (especially for full-figured women) the bustline must be fitted properly so that it is not too revealing, too tight, or otherwise exposing more of the breasts so it is inappropriate. If your blouse gaps at the buttons of the bustline, the shirt does not fit you properly. Fabric or fashion tapes can be purchased to hold blouses in the right position.
Choose your ties carefully, men. Ties can allow for some color and pattern in an outfit that would be rather drab. It attracts attention, so be very careful in what you choose. Not all ties are appropriate for business formal dress code.
Opt for either solid color, or have a small (no larger than a quarter) sized print that covers them.
Avoid ties that have more than 3-4 colors total, and which have an image or scene printed onto them.
Ties should match both your shirts and your suits and make sure they use colors that match or go with the rest of your outfit.
Try to buy shirts and ties together, if possible. Men’s stores coordinate colors to try to make the buying process easy. It may not be the same colors next year or even next season! If in doubt, ask for help–a good quality store will be happy to help you.
Bow ties are also generally considered acceptable. However, they are far less common and can be considered unusual or quirky.
Bolo ties are often regionally acceptable in areas of the American South, Southwest, and West coast. However, they may or may not be considered an acceptable replacement for a tie depending on the workplace.
Say yes to the dress, ladies! Dresses can easily be worn in a business formal setting, but be careful with your selection. Choose dresses that are knee-length or longer, and are in a subtle print or solid color. Dresses should not be too tight-fitting and should not be revealing/ have a plunging neckline.
A good blazer or suit jacket can make a dress more formal and versatile. This sort of outfit is the basis of the classic day to night women’s wear, in which a woman goes to work wearing an evening appropriate dress coordinated with a work appropriate blazer. At the evening rendezvous, put aside the blazer for a less formal look.
Choose the right shoes for the job. Business formal jobs all require quality footwear, typically made of leather (or similar high-quality material).
Men should always wear formal shoes, often in the baroque or oxford style.Lace up is more traditional.There are many slip-on loafers that also may be appropriate and formal. Black is the go-to color, although brown is sometimes acceptable.
Women should typically wear low or moderate high heel shoes or flat pumps. Conservative boots are sometimes appropriate. Make sure details and embellishments are restrained. Women generally have more choice in color, but sticking to black and neutral colors is still safer.
Sock it to them. In a formal office, white cotton athletic socks are usually not acceptable. If you are wearing socks, they should usually be dark (black is typical). Ideally they go with the pants or, shoes.
Women, wear your nylons. In a formal workplace, you should usually wear pantyhose, or tights under your skirt. Choose sheer tights in a neutral color.
Leggings are not appropriate in a formal workplace; choose opaque tights instead.
Barelegged (although well groomed) is becoming more acceptable. But if in doubt, put on a pair of pantyhose or tights.
Add other accessories. To complete your outfit, remember some accessories. In general, keep jewelry and other accessories subtle and tasteful. Be careful of wearing too much, although what constitutes too much will vary from culture to culture. Also, what is OK for a man and a woman may be different. For instance:
For men: cuff links, rings (such as a class or wedding ring), watch, pocket square (very formal). Necklaces and bracelets are often uncommon but usually acceptable if in good taste. Medical Alert jewelry is always OK. Most formal offices will not look favorably on body piercings, including earrings. Belt buckles should generally not be oversized.
For women: Jewelry (rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, watches ) are all typically acceptable, but be careful of too much or too large pieces. Pierced ears are almost universally OK (with studs or small earrings), generally other body piercings should not be visible. Scarves, belts, headbands, hair accessories (such as barrettes), are also all fine.