Decoding The Dress Code: The 4 Levels Of Business Attire
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Decoding The Dress Code: The 4 Levels Of Business Attire

The situation: you’ve been invited to a business event and the dress code is “business professional,” or you were invited for an interview and the HR manager tells you to come “business formal.” Don’t know the difference and confused about what to wear? Don’t panic! Use our cheat sheet to get the low-down on levels of business attire in today’s professional world.

Business formal

The stern father of business attire, business formal means, well, business. It’s most likely to be enforced in law firms and very corporate environments. Here’s what it dictates:

Men:

  1. A tailored one-, two- or three-button suit in solid black, gray or dark navy
  2. A clean, crisply pressed white shirt with collar
  3. A conservative tie—no bold patterns or bright colors
  4. Elegant, conservative accessories like tie clips and cufflinks
  5. Shoes should be closed-toe oxfords in black or dark brown—no loafers
  6. Black socks—no colors, no patterns and definitely no white

Women:

  1. A tailored skirt- or pantsuit in a dark color with a conservative cut.
  2. A clean, crisply pressed white shirt with collar
  3. Nude hosiery
  4. Closed-toe heels in a neutral or dark color
  5. Conservative jewelry--no dangly earrings or flashy pendants

Business professional

A close cousin of business formal, but slightly less strict. Business professional (also called business traditional) still means business, but with a little more room for personality. Here’s what it calls for:

Men:

  1. A one- or two-button suit in conservative colors--black, navy or gray--but a subdued pattern can be introduced
  2. A collared shirt that is white, blue or colored
  3. Ties in solids, colors or patterns
  4. Shoes should be polished black or brown oxfords or loafers
  5. Black socks, or socks with a splash of color or a cool pattern, which can personalize your business professional look. We repeat: no white socks!

Women:

  1. A skirt- or pantsuit is still the general rule, with the introduction of more vibrant colors and patterns being acceptable.
  2. Collared shirts or sleeveless shell tops in white or solid colors
  3. Sheer or opaque hosiery in nude or black
  4. Closed-toe heels in neutral colors
  5. More wiggle room with jewelry--larger “statement pieces” can be worn as the overall look is balanced

Business casual

Less formal than traditional business attire while remaining professional, business casual can be a bit of a wild card. Its meaning can vary drastically between companies and cultures, so be sure to check in with your HR department before going on a shopping spree. Generally speaking, it involves clothing that projects a professional image but is more comfortable and relaxed. Here’s our take:

Men:

  1. Dress slacks or khakis
  2. Dress shirt with open collar, or polo shirt
  3. Tie and sports jacket optional
  4. Pullovers and sweaters
  5. Casual accessories--i.e. a watch with rubber or leather band
  6. Shoes can be oxfords, loafers or other, but avoid tennis shoes

Women:

  1. Well paired business separates
  2. Skirts or slacks with a casual top or cardigan
  3. Dress with opaque hosiery
  4. Closed toed heels, flats or loafers. In the summer, check your company’s policy on sandals. An elegant, low-heeled sandal can pass.

Casual

Also known as small business casual or start-up chic, it’s the fun uncle of business attire. But it doesn’t exactly translate to “anything goes.” Remember that you are always judged on your appearance, so if you’re lucky enough to work in a casual office environment, you still need to maintain some personal standards in order to be taken seriously. Here are our tips for both men and women:

  1. Clean, stain-free clothing every day
  2. Jeans, when worn, should be dark wash
  3. NO sports gear like jerseys or sweatshirts from your favorite team
  4. Invest in a good iron. Even if you wear tee shirts and jeans to work, you’ll look better
  5. Use the money you’re not spending on fancy suits on high quality shoes
  6. Keep your clubbing clothes at home in the closet

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