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A Beginner’s Guide to Business Attire

woman looking at clothing rack with various business attire items

Showing up to work often means juggling various responsibilities, to-dos, and scheduling — so what you’re going to wear might be the last thing on your mind. Yet your business attire, or what you wear to work, can reflect your professionalism and personal style and even affect how your coworkers see you. Here’s your go-to guide for different types of business attire, how to know which one to wear, and top tips for dressing for success. We’ll cover:

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What Is Business Attire?

Business attire is what you wear to work — whether that’s on a work Zoom call or for an in-office meeting. This attire will vary depending on where and for whom you work. For example, you might wear more formal clothes if you’re a lawyer meeting with clients at a law firm. On the other hand, if you’re working for a laid-back social media company, the dress code might be more casual. 

>>MORE: Explore a day in the life as a lawyer with Forage’s law virtual experience programs.

Types of Business Attire

Casual

Casual business attire is clothing you might wear in your everyday life, yet it’s important to be conscious that what you’re wearing is still okay for the workplace (i.e., no profane graphics, ripped jeans, or athleisure). This dress code may include t-shirts, jeans, sneakers, and casual dresses.

Smart Casual

Smart casual is a dress code that “dresses up” your everyday wardrobe. For example, you may add a blazer to a t-shirt and jeans or wear a more refined sweater and some nicer accessories. Smart casual isn’t about swapping out your casual clothes for more professional ones but rather elevating them to make you look slightly more formal.

Business Casual

If smart casual is dressing up a casual dress code, business casual attire is dressing down a formal one. While jeans aren’t typical in this dress code, neither are suits, unless the former is dressed up and the latter is dressed down. Blouses, dress shirts, slacks, dress pants, and blazers are all staples in this dress code.

>>MORE: What Does Business Casual Really Mean in 2023?

Business Professional

If all work dress codes are supposed to be professional, it’s logical to wonder — what is business professional attire? Business professional attire is the midway point between business casual and formal. It’s traditional, like business formal, but allows for more flexibility with how you show off your style (like with statement accessories or patterned clothing).

Business Formal

Suits, pantsuits, and formal dresses make up this dress code, one that’s common in traditional, conservative working environments. Business formal means business, and items that show personality and vibrancy are far less common with this attire. Think of what characters wear in TV shows and movies like “Succession,” “Industry,” “Billions,” or “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Determining the Dress Code

With so many types of business attire, how do you know what to wear to an interview or for your first day? 

“Every company’s description of what is acceptable for the office is different,” Angela Denae Lynch, personal stylist at Angela Denae Style Studio, says. “The first step is to ask the hiring manager if there is a dress code or explain what people on the team usually wear to work.”

>>MORE: What Is a Hiring Manager (and How to Talk to One)?

You can also take hints from the company’s website or LinkedIn to see what employees wear in company photos. 

Amanda Wood, CEO and founder of The Haute Edit, a styling services company, recommends looking for norms in the industry, too. For example, finance is typically a more formal industry than marketing

How Has Business Attire Changed?

Since the pandemic, business attire still follows the same general categories, but what’s popular in each dress code — and what dress codes most companies follow — has become more casual and focused on personal style. 

“A new dress code has emerged of basically, ‘please look professional, you’re representing the company, but you can dress more casually,'” Wood says. “Smart casual has become the norm: not as many suits, (but if wearing a suit, sneakers are fine), jogger style office pants, and nice jeans.”

Lynch says, “comfort has definitely become the priority since the pandemic,” and her clients are trying to level up their comfortable outfits with a touch of style.

“They’re looking to elevate their zoom outfits, create a hybrid work capsule wardrobe, or just wear pieces that don’t make them feel like they rolled out of bed.”

Dressing for Work: Dos and Don’ts

You know the dress code and business attire trends since the pandemic — but do you feel confident in your work wardrobe? Here are a few more tips from our style experts.

Do

  • Look for inspiration. You may know the dress code, but you may still need to figure out what outfit to wear. “If you need more visual direction to help you, do a quick search on Pinterest!” Lynch recommends. “Searching for ‘casual office wear’ gives you a plethora of outfit styling options to inspire you when putting together your work looks.”
  • Keep an eye on your coworkers. Try your best to figure out the dress code from the hiring manager or company LinkedIn before you go in, but once you start, observe what others wear. “I always tell my clients to start the first few weeks of a new job wearing ‘business casual’ or ‘office professional’ clothing,” Lynch says. “Once you see what your coworkers wear, you can start to acclimate your outfits to align with them.”
  • Consider how you want to present yourself. When styling, Wood likes to ask personality questions. What are your goals? What are your aspirations? What are three words that you would like someone to think the minute they meet you? These questions help you determine what style makes you feel comfortable and confident. 

Don’t

  • Go too casual. “Avoid wearing very casual clothing such as: ripped jeans (or any jeans period), hoodies, graphic t-shirts unless you are told those are already the office vibes,” Lynch says. You should always maintain professionalism, even if the dress code is more relaxed.
  • Leave your personality out. “Don’t create a style you think you should have or conform to norms or older traditions that make you uncomfortable,” Wood says. “Create a style that is true to yourself, that will help you achieve your career goals, and that you will be comfortable in.” 

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Image credit: Ron Lach / Pexels