Professional business attire should convey your credibility and competence, but also reflect some personality without going overboard. It is important to understand your office’s cultural norms for both business casual and “client-ready” days, as standards differ across states, occupations, and offices.
The Basics of Professional Attire
The keys to professional attire start with cleanliness and well-fitting clothes, as well as avoiding inappropriate attire.
- A suit, no matter how expensive, will always look dishevelled and unprofessional if it is unironed or too tight.
- As a rule of thumb, skirts should be no shorter than the tips of your fingers.
- Buttons on your shirt should not gape open when worn.
- Suits and trousers bought off the rack often do not fit perfectly, so tailoring may be needed for a proper fit.
Determining Your Office’s Dress Code
How you should dress in your office is largely dependent on your comapny’s dress code and the cultural norms of your office. Companies usually issue employee handbooks with formalized dress codes, and that is also a good starting point to understand what is appropriate to wear in your office.
A good tip is to observe the attire of your supervisors and women who are similar in rank to you in your office for a week or two whenever you start a new job. It is important to pay attention to what they wear on days where there might be an important meeting (when you will typically see the most formal of attire) and ordinary days. Seeing what others wear is the best barometer in determining the appropriate level of formality in your office.
Types of Professional Business Attire
Think of business formal attire as what you would wear to an interview, when you’re giving an important presentation to the CEO, or going to court. It’s the most formal attire one can wear to work.
- This comprises a blazernand either a pair of trousers or a skirt in a matching fabric
- It is best to buy this in a neutral color, like black or dark grey, and in a seasonless fabric like wool
It is important to ensure that the suit is well-fitting. Pay specific attention to:
- Length of the sleeves on the blazer and how the blazer sits on your shoulders
- Length of the skirt and the slit at the back of the skirt, especially when sitting down or walking
- Length of the trouser pants, especially when worn with heels or flats. The trouser cuff should hit at the midway-point of either type of shoe, and may need to be tailored depending on your height and height of shoe you typically wear.
- There are trends in business suits, similar to the rest of fashion, but the tried-and-true simple, unembellished suit is appropriate for all formal business occasions.
- Buttoned-up shirt
- The buttoned-up shirt is often described as the workhorse of a business formal outfit, and that is because it comes in a huge variety of colors, patterns, and fabrics, and is suitable for all business formal occasions. A cotton blend or silk shirt is often the best option.
- For formal occasions, light colors, like baby blue, light pink, and lavender, is recommended.
- Closed-toe pumps
- A well-made pair of leather shoes is essential to a professional woman’s wardrobe. They should be comfortable while remaining stylish and work-appropriate. Both flats and heels are appropriate for the workday. The suggested height for a pair of high heels is up to 3″ for both comfort and maintaining professionalism.
- Two pairs of shoes would be sufficient — a pair in black leatherand a nude patent shoe would be appropriate for most workwear outfits.
- It is also important to maintain the condition of your shoe. Scuffed toes and worn-down heels are no-no’s in a business professional situation, so be sure to take them frequently to the cobbler or get them cleaned once a season.
- The ultimate in conservative accessories, one will never go wrong with a great set of pearls, be it a pair of earrings or a single-strand necklace.
- Pearls range dramatically in price points, but cheaper pearls and even fake pearls would be appropriate in the right size.
- Leather bag
- A leather bag large enough to fit letter-sized documents is a necessity in the workplace.
- It’s best to buy a handbag in a neutral color, like black, that does not show stains easily.
Casual dressing in a business environment is extremely different from a casual outfit that one would wear in non-work settings. Business casual attire is often worn in creative industries and on “casual friday” days.
- Dress pants
- Trousers that are bought separately from a suit will become a central piece of your business casual closet. They come in a variety of cuts: larger ladies might enjoy bootcut trousers, whereas smaller ladies might prefer tapered pants.
Depending on your office culture, it might not be appropriate to wear colored and patterned pants. For more conservative offices, stick to pants in a solid neutral, like black, navy, or camel. For ladies in more creative industries, you might be able to wear pants in jeweled tones and with subtle patterns, though neon colors and loud prints should be avoided.
- Pencil skirts and a-line skirts are the most appropriate options for a business casual environment. It is best to choose a wool blend or cotton-blend skirt to minimize wrinkling. Printed and colored skirts have become increasingly popular in recent years as well.
- A denim skirt would not be appropriate for the office.
- Appropriate blouses
- In general, blouses appropriate for the workplace have sleeves and are not sheer. If you would like to make a sleeveless blouse work for the office, wearing a cardigan or blazer over the blouse would be ideal.
- There is a huge variety of blouses out there, but the ones universally appropriate for the workplace are silk shirts in solid colors, bow-tie blouses, and cowl neck blouses.
- Work dresses should not be too tight, too short, or overly revealing in general.
- They can be paired with blazers and cardigans for the colder months, though dresses worn in warmer months should also have sleeves.
- Jeans are sometimes appropriate for business casual offices, like during “jeans Fridays”
- In general, stick to a darker wash and jeans that are free from rips and tears. The best styles to wear to the office are bootcut, straight cut, and tapered jeans. Skinny jeans that are skintight and boyfriend jeans (oversized denim) would not be appropriate for the office.
- Chunky jewelry
- Shoes and bags with more embellishment and color
- Business casual outfits can include a little more personality than more formal attire. For example, a pair of burgundy shoes to match with black pants and a cream shirt, or select a pair of shoes with some studded embellishment. The key is to keep it simple and not delve into ruffles, frills, or glitter — such embellishments are too casual and do not give a good impression of your competence.
Purchasing Professional Attire
Depending on your budget, prices for a full business professional closet can range from $300 to well over $2,000.
For ladies on a larger budget, the best places for professional business wear are luxury department stores like Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman, which offer high end suiting from Armani and Hugo Boss, and work-appropriate attire from brands like The Row and Celine.
Stores for purchasing professional attire on a $300-$500 budget include Brooks Brothers, J.Crew, Ann Taylor, and Theory. Department stores likeBloomingdale’s and Nordstrom also offer suiting options that fall in this price range.
There are plenty of great options for finding professional clothing on a budget. If you are just starting out and are in need of a cheaper alternative, fast fashion retailers like H&M, Topshop, and Forever 21 all offer suiting options. However, it is important to take into consideration fit and length, as these cheaper options are typically shorter and tighter than is appropriate for the office. In this situation, spending a little more on tailoring would pay off in the long run.
Building Your Work Wardrobe
If you’re a recent graduate starting out in the workforce, or someone looking to build up your professional workwear closet, it is best to initially purchase two suits (one pantsuit, one skirt suit) in a seasonless fabric like wool, and three to five shirts that pair well with your suits. As you grow into your role or add to your wardrobe budget, accessories and additional trouser, blouse, and dress options can slowly be worked into your closet.