What Is Business Attire? (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 17, 2020

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Whether you’re going to an interview or showing up for your first day at a new job, understanding the dress code is essential. The clothes you wear in a professional setting send a message to those around you, and you want to ensure that message is a positive one.

Wearing business attire tells everyone you work with that you’re a serious professional and will help you feel more confident in the workplace. In this article, we’ll cover what constitutes business attire, give examples of its many forms, and discuss when to opt for different levels of formality. Because deciding what to wear to work shouldn’t be a job in itself.

What Is Business Attire?

Business attire is clothing that is appropriate for professional settings. It’s a wide-ranging term that covers everything from business casual to business formal clothes. Every workplace is different, and figuring out your employer’s dress code expectations is crucial for establishing a solid wardrobe for work.

What constitutes appropriate business attire changes depending on your position and your industry. Even companies within the same industry will have different notions of how best to dress for work. Let’s break down the different types of business attire to give you a better idea of your options.

Business Attire: Types, Examples, and When to Wear Each

Business attire is categorized by level of formality. Your position in the company also plays a role in determining how formally to dress. Senior-level executives are more apt to wear more formal clothes than entry-level employees, for example.

A company’s dress code aims to set the tone of the workplace, so management will make decisions that align with organizational priorities. For instance, a business might prefer employees with client-facing roles to wear classier clothing than those whose tasks are entirely internal. Some managers feel that employees who can wear comfier clothes will be happier and more productive.

When you’re going for an interview or starting a new job, you can ask human resources about the company’s dress code to better understand what to wear. Always go a step more formal than requested at first. Then, you can make alterations as you start seeing how everyone around you dresses.

Without further adieu, let’s take a look at each type of business attire, starting with the most formal and working our way back to sweatpants (just kidding; those are, unfortunately, still off the table for business attire).

Business Formal

Think Bond; James Bond. Business formal is hyper-traditional and ultra-stylish, without being gaudy or over the top. Think of this as business professional with a few extra bits and bobs.

  • Business formal examples for men:

    Job type you want
    Full Time
    Part Time
    Internship
    Temporary
    • Black or dark-colored suit

    • Solid white or light button-down shirt (long sleeves)

    • Solid or two-tone silk tie (conservative)

    • Upscale, dark dress pants (not chinos)

    • Sports jacket

    • Dress shoes (black, if the suit is black)

    • Dark dress socks

    • Accessorize with: a classic-looking watch (ditch the Casio), subtle cologne, dark leather belt, leather briefcase/portfolio, cufflinks, pocket squares

  • Business formal examples for women:

    • Skirt suit or pantsuit (dark colors are safest)

    • Long evening dress (for extra-fancy occasions)

    • Simple, formal blouse (silk or other smooth material)

    • Pumps or closed-toe high heels with a skirt suit or dress

    • Oxfords or loafers with a pantsuit

    • Pantyhose with a skirt suit or dress

    • Dark dress socks with a pantsuit

    • Accessorize with: Simple, minimalist jewelry, subtle make-up/perfume, small shoulder-strap purse, leather briefcase/portfolio/clutch

  • When to wear it: Business formal clothing is reserved for, well, formal occasions. Think award ceremonies, corporate events in the evening, galas/benefit dinners, and award ceremonies. When you hear “black tie” or “evening dress,” that’s business formal.

Business Professional

Your traditional business wear. In most portrayals of corporate life in America, you’ll see employees wearing business professional clothing. It’s conservative without being super-stuffy.

  • Business professional examples for men:

    • Dark-colored suit (black, navy, gray)

    • Simple tie (avoid flashy patterns)

    • Solid or simple-patterned button-up shirt (long sleeves, light color(s))

    • Dark dress pants or chinos

    • Dress shoes or other leather shoes (Oxfords, loafers, etc.)

    • Accessorize with: dark leather belt, little or no cologne/aftershave, leather briefcase/portfolio, watch (nothing wacky)

  • Business professional examples for women:

    • Tidy dress, skirt, or slacks

    • Dark or solid-colored pantsuit or skirt suit

    • Button-down shirt or blouse with blazer

    • Light-colored pantyhose (with skirt/dress)

    • Dark-colored dress socks (with pants)

    • High heels (no more than three inches), loafers, or flats

    • Accessorize with: dark leather belt, little or no perfume, minimal jewelry or hair accessories, leather briefcase/portfolio/pocketbook/purse

  • When to wear it: Conservative workplaces will often mandate a business professional look. It fosters an image of reliable professionals whom clients can trust with their business. If you’re going for an interview and don’t know what to wear, business professional clothing is a safe bet.

Smart Casual

Smart casual attire falls somewhere in between business casual and business professional. It opens up a lot more variety in your wardrobe, allowing your personality to shine while maintaining a professional vibe.

  • Smart casual examples for men:

    • Sports jacket

    • Tie (optional)

    • Button-down shirt, polo, turtleneck, sweater, or sweater vest

    • Khakis, chinos, or dress pants

    • Dress shoes, Oxfords, loafers, simple (clean) sneakers or boots

    • Accessorize with: dark leather belt, little or no cologne/aftershave, leather briefcase/portfolio, watch

  • Smart casual examples for women:

    • Blazer or jacket

    • Blouse, shirt, turtleneck, dress, or sweater

    • Dress pants or skirt

    • Pantyhose (with skirt)

    • Heels, flats, or simple (clean) sneakers or boots

    • Accessorize with: dark leather belt, little or no perfume, minimal jewelry or hair accessories, leather briefcase/portfolio/pocketbook/purse

  • When to wear it: Smart casual is your go-to if you’re applying for a job at a company that bills its dress code as “casual.” That way, you won’t turn up overdressed, but you’ll still look smart, professional, and like someone who takes their appearance seriously.

    It’s also an excellent place to start if you’re starting a new job at a place with a “business casual” dress code because it’s a small step up from that. Additionally, you may find that a company says they require business professional attire, only to find that people actually dress closer to smart casual. It’s a very versatile look that works for a lot of situations.

Business Casual

Casual clothing with an eye toward professionalism, business casual clothes are comfier and allow for more personality to shine through brighter colors and patterns. We’re not quite at jeans and t-shirt level here, but we’re ditching the suit.

  • Business casual examples for men:

    • Sports jacket and tie are optional

    • Button-down shirt, polo (or any collared shirt), turtleneck, sweater, or sweater vest – short-sleeved shirts are acceptable in warmer months, but ensure that they’re collared

    • Khaki, cotton, or gabardine pants – khaki or chino shorts are permitted in warmer months

    • Leather shoes or clean, simple sneakers or boots

    • Accessorize with: leather belt, little or no cologne/aftershave, leather briefcase/portfolio, watch

  • Business casual examples for women:

    • Sweaters, cardigans, twinsets, polos, button-up tops, blouses, blazers – short-sleeved shirts are acceptable in warmer months

    • Skirts, dresses, slacks

    • High heels, flats, or clean and simple sneakers or boots

    • Accessorize with: leather belt, little or no perfume, minimal jewelry or hair accessories, leather briefcase/portfolio/pocketbook/purse

  • When to wear it: Some companies may allow employees to wear business casual clothes to work. Since this category of business attire is incredibly variable, companies should set up guidelines to ensure everyone is on the same page for what constitutes business casual.

    Your company may have a business professional dress code, but business casual clothes should work just fine when you go to an out-of-work get-together. The idea behind business casual is to make sure all employees are comfortable while maintaining a professional appearance.

Casual

Finally, we made it to everyone’s favorite – casual attire. Casual attire is wide-ranging, so we can’t cover everything that falls under its umbrella. However, you know what people wear when they’re not dressed up for work or an event – all that is casual attire.

  • Casual attire examples for men:

    • T-shirts, uncollared or collared shirts, sweaters, vests, sweatshirts, zip-up hoodies

    • Any casual pants, including jeans and shorts when seasonally appropriate

    • Sneakers, boots, whatever – just don’t wear open-toed sandals

    • Accessorize with: whatever you want.

  • Casual attire examples for women:

    • T-shirts, uncollared or collared shirts, sweaters, vests, sweatshirts, zip-up hoodies, blouses

    • Skirts, sundresses, tank tops (just don’t show midriff)

    • Any casual pants, including jeans and shorts when seasonally appropriate

    • Sneakers, boots, whatever – just don’t wear open-toed sandals

    • Accessorize with: whatever you want.

  • When to wear it: Only the most casual businesses or positions with no client interactions will allow for truly casual attire. Other than that, feel free to wear casual clothing to events like corporate picnics or other informal get-togethers – just make sure everyone else is doing the same. Of course, when you’re off the clock, casual wear has no limits. Go ahead, slap on some sweatpants – you deserve it.

Parting Tips for Business Attire

What you wear to work is mainly dependent on the policies of your employer. Above all, follow the company’s guidelines for appropriate workplace attire. However, a few tips hold true no matter which category of business attire you’re required to wear.

  • Get rid of wrinkles and stains. Even if your office is extremely casual, you don’t want to look like a slob. Wrinkled or stained clothes send a message that you don’t care about your appearance, which will hamper your professional image.

  • Make sure your clothes fit. Ill-fitting clothes, regardless of how elegant, look silly. Get yourself a wardrobe that fits well, and see a tailor if you’re trying to maintain your favorite suit after a weight change.

  • Be a copy-cat. We really hate giving this advice, but it’s sound. When you’re the new guy or gal in the office, pay attention to how everyone else dresses and aim for that same level of formality. There are still ways to incorporate your personality into any of the categories of business attire we discussed.

  • Dress for the job you want. You know the expression. If you want to be in a higher position, dress the way folks in that position dress, rather than your peers.

  • Stay away from busy accessories and logos. Unless you’re a fortune-teller, tone down the amount of big, gaudy jewelry you wear. And unless you’re a tattoo artist, steer clear of potentially offensive imagery or phrases.

  • Use a company’s “About Us” page before an interview. If you don’t know what level of business attire you should wear to an interview, check out the company’s “About Us” page. You should be able to tell how formal they are based on the language there. Alternatively, just call the company’s HR department to ask about the dress code ahead of time.

  • Avoid loud smells. A little bit of perfume or cologne is fine, but don’t revert to middle school days and empty a whole can of Axe on yourself.

  • Hygiene matters. We’ve covered clothing, but your hair, fingernails, and overall physical appearance should be as neat and presentable as possible. Unless it’s no-shave November and your office is into it, keep your beard trim and clean as well.

Final Thoughts

Choosing what to wear in professional settings can be a headache. Hopefully, this article gave you some insight into how businesses and individuals alike think when they see certain clothing styles. Dressing in appropriate business attire shows your coworkers, managers, and clients that you’re a dedicated professional.

Get going on assembling or categorizing your wardrobe, so you’re ready for any professional situation. You won’t regret it.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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