Business suits. Button-up collared shirts. Oxford-style blouses. Professional shoes.
They’re all part of the traditional business professional attire that is typically worn in conservative settings or at companies with strict dress codes.
But with the rise in remote and hybrid work, changes in the work landscape and rules about how you show up are being rewritten.
Whether you’re in the office or working remotely, dressing up for work can be tricky — but not impossible.
What is business professional attire?
Business professional attire is a conservative clothing style common in industries like government, banking, law, and finance. It often includes clothing items worn in professional business settings like button-down shirts, ties, blazers, knee-length skirts, and closed-toe heels.
Business professional attire vs. business formal attire
While business professional attire and business formal attire sound similar, they’re actually fairly different. Certain careers or situations are more likely to call for one over the other. As a rule of thumb, the latter is more strict and conservative.
Business formal attire
Business formal attire is more formal than business professional attire. It is commonly required in professions such as law, finance, and high-level corporate settings. Here are some examples of business formal attire:
- Men: Tailored suit in a neutral color such as black, navy, or gray. A dress shirt, tie, and dress shoes are also essential. It’s common for some to wear cuff links and a matching belt.
- Women: Tailored suit with a skirt or pants in a neutral color. A blouse or button-down shirt is usually worn underneath. Closed-toe shoes with a moderate heel are preferred, and accessories should be minimal and professional.
In the legal profession, for instance, attorneys must dress in well-fitted black, navy, or gray suits paired with a crisp dress shirt and tie (or blouse for women) to maintain a professional appearance.
Business professional attire
Business professional attire is typically less formal than business formal attire, but more formal than business casual attire. It’s commonly seen in office environments and industries where a more relaxed dress code is followed. Here are some examples of business professional attire:
- Men: Tailored trousers, dress shirts, blazers, and optional ties. They may opt for a more casual look by wearing khakis or chinos with a dress shirt.
- Women: Tailored pants or skirts with blouses or tops. They may also choose to wear a dress or a skirt suit. The clothing should be modest and professional, avoiding overly revealing or casual outfits.
The New York City Law Department has a strict business professional dress code for its workers, particularly in circumstances where it’s customary to do so. This includes court appearances, internal and external depositions, and meetings with government agencies, clients, third parties, or adversaries.
Importance of maintaining a professional appearance at work
Besides influencing your mood, confidence, and performance, your clothing choices impact others’ perceptions and assessments of you.
In fact, a study on social relationships found that the average first impression is made in less than 30 seconds. Thirty-three percent of those polled make up their mind in under 10 seconds, citing dressing smartly as one of the first things they notice when they meet someone.
The same goes for the workplace environment. Professional clothes can help you make major strides toward landing meaningful partnerships, unlocking new opportunities, or getting new jobs.
Maintaining a professional appearance in the workplace helps you:
- Convey professionalism: Professional business attire communicates you’re sharp and serious about your work. It also shows you put effort and time into your appearance, signifying self-respect and a high sense of self-worth.
- Form a good first impression: People notice your appearance before your character. Those initial judgments about you can influence their long-term opinions. This is especially critical in a job interview setting or when meeting clients.
- Present your company positively: You represent your company to the public. Professional clothing can improve the reception you receive and present a positive image of your company to clients and the public.
- Enhance your credibility: Professional dressing enhances your credibility as you deal with people. They’ll think and respond more positively, engage, and trust what you’re saying more when you look professional.
- Improve your self-confidence: A professional outfit can help you feel empowered and boost your self-confidence to deliver your best work and take on new challenges.
- Be more productive: Dressing professionally also boosts productivity as you’re more mentally prepared to separate work from leisure time.
- Feel part of the team: It’s easier to feel like you belong and be included in important projects or discussions when you appear professional in your dress and demeanor.
What constitutes professional appearance in the workplace?
Managers and customers expect employees to display and possess a certain level of professionalism. It shows they respect the workplace, their work, and the company’s brand.
But as culture evolves and norms change, the idea of what is and isn’t considered “professional” is also in flux.
This raises many questions about professionalism and what employees must do to maintain a professional appearance. For example:
- When do you know an employee is professional?
- Do employers need to set out dress-code policies?
- Should you just expect employees to use common sense to know what to wear?
- Does the industry and nature of the organization or employees’ roles impact what they should wear in the workplace?
All these factors, including the geographic location and demographics of the applicant pool and workforce, are real issues employers face when determining professionalism. They also affect how you evaluate and make decisions on hiring applicants.
Different jurisdictions prohibit or ban discrimination based on factors like appearance and weight. For example, Washington, DC, prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their manner or style of dress and personal grooming (hairstyle and beards).
California, New Jersey, and New York also have ordinances banning employment decisions based on personal appearance, particularly hairstyles (twists, braids, or dreadlocks). This legislation is based on the notion that certain hairstyles can be a proxy for race, so discrimination based on natural hair and hairstyles associated with race constitutes racial discrimination.
Consumers expect service providers to present themselves based on certain standards. This informs employers’ practical need to ensure their employees maintain a professional appearance in the workplace. Otherwise, employers fear losing customers to the competition if their standards don’t match up.
The onus is for employers to examine professional appearance policies to attract top talent, reduce attrition or employee turnover, and minimize the risk of legal claims.
Business professional attire examples
Here are some examples of clothing types you should have in your professional wardrobe for in-office and client-facing roles.
Business professional attire for men
- Long-sleeved button-up shirt or stiff collar shirt
- Clean, wrinkle-free dark-colored suits (navy, gray, or charcoal gray)
- Tie (bold color or pattern with a little sheen)
- Pocket square to complement tie (optional)
- Dress socks (darker than pants)
- Clean, polished Oxford, derby, or blucher leather shoes (black or brown)
- Overcoat or trench coat (for colder months)
You can accessorize with cuff links, a subtle but unobtrusive lapel pin (if needed), tie clip/bar, and a minimalist analog-face watch that matches your belt or shoe. Your accessories must coordinate with each other for a clean, professional look.
Business professional attire for women
- Two-piece skirt or pant suit (neutral, taupe, or dark tones)
- Button-up shirt (light colors) or tailored blouse
- Knee-length pencil skirts
- Skin-toned or neutral hosiery
- Flats, heeled loafer, or closed-toe shoes
- Light makeup
- Simple jewelry
If necessary, keep your daytime makeup conservative to appear natural. Apply neutral or subdued-colored lipstick.
Wear minimal jewelry, such as small, discreet but elegant earrings and a bracelet. If you must wear rings, restrict them to an engagement and/or wedding ring.
Business etiquette for professional wear
Unless your employer requires you to wear a uniform, dressing professionally can be challenging.
Fortunately, there are some common industry standards to strike the balance between professionalism and comfort. Use these tips on business etiquette for professional wear:
- Keep your jewelry choices simple
- Ensure your clothes are clean, wrinkle-free, and fit well
- Wear dark suits with light-colored shirts or blouses
- Don’t wear separates (e.g., blazer and dress pants)
- Make sure your tie ends at the top of your belt buckle
- Don’t wear suede or matte leather shoes
- Wear socks that complement or match your pants
- Don’t mix metals (silver and gold) in the same outfit
Dress codes may be evolving, but dressing professionally is still a crucial part of the physical and digital workspace. What’s more important is how the workplace dress code boosts employee confidence and teamwork while driving productivity and higher performance. Following these tips will help you tailor your look to your work environment, clients, and occasion.