Business Professional Attire: What It Is and Examples

By Chris Kolmar - Oct. 27, 2020

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Let’s say you just got an interview at your dream job. Or maybe you already got the job.

Yay, you!

Then you were told that the office dress code was business professional.

Business professional? What does that even mean and how are you going to figure out what to wear. Of course, we have the answers for you about business professional, business casual, and other work-wear terms.

Why Does It Matter What You Wear to a Job Interview or to Work?

First of all, congratulations for taking the time to look this up.

Dressing appropriately for a job interview or the job itself is really important. This is your chance to make that first impression and show them how well you fit with their job culture. You put a lot of work into getting the interview or the job and you don’t want to ruin it by not caring about your appearance.

Sure, we can argue back and forth about your appearance not having anything to do with how you do the job. That may be true, but the effort you take to look nice speaks volumes. That’s what employers are going to notice. That and how well you can gauge what’s appropriate in their work environment.

What Does Business Professional Attire Mean?

Since you were told that you need to dress this way, let’s look at it first. Business professional definitely implies it’s more “serious” than business-casual, it’s right in the name after all.

A business professional atmosphere can mean business suits, both for men and women. There isn’t a lot of leeway when it comes to men’s clothes beyond that, maybe a blazer and dress pants instead of a suit. Maybe it’s ties optional but that’s about it.

For women the boundaries are more flexible. A suit always goes over nicely, but you too can get away with a blazer or leaving the jacket at home altogether. A well-tailored dress can have a very professional finish. You can even pair a modest skirt or trousers with a blouse and come up with a business professional outfit. The key is to keep it very conservative, wear subtle prints, if any, and lean toward dark colors or neutral hues.

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Unfortunately, for the fashion maven, business professional rarely means trendy. If you love cutting edge clothing and making a statement with what you wear, this style of dress is probably not going to be your favorite.

What Does Business Casual Attire Mean?

Okay, so if business professional is way off on one end of the spectrum, where is business casual? If only that were an easy to answer question, but it isn’t. The problem is that each office tends to have its own ideas of what business casual is.

If you work in a strictly business professional office that treats Fridays as a business casual day, you can definitely skip the jacket for that day and maybe wear a brighter top. But you’re not going to get away with anything more casual than that.

If you work in an office that claims to be business casual all the time, then you might never need a suit, but you’ll still be wearing dress clothes.

These offices tend to be a little more relaxed in their dress codes. You’ll see a bit more personality and individual style, some bright colors and even bold prints. More dress pants and dresses than suits and sportcoats. But you’re probably not going to see jeans – that’s just too casual.

So how about the office that typically dresses down, one where wearing jeans is expected – except for business casual days. This does happen in some jobs. Let’s say you work in a print shop and you wear jeans and any top you want on a regular basis. But one day a month you host your clients for an open house. This day you’ll need to wear business casual.

Luckily for you, that definition tends to be even more relaxed than the others. A nice pair of clean and not ripped jeans might do. A pair of khakis would probably be even better. And a great polo top or even a button-down shirt pairs well with either pants option. You can even wear a sweater and fit right in.

What Does Casual Wear Mean for Business?

If you work in a business that says their dress-code is casual, that could mean a couple things.

If it’s an office, you’re probably still expected to wear khakis or dress pants, but your top could be a polo or a simple sweater. You might be able to get away with clean and neat looking jeans, but don’t assume. It’s always best to dress a little nicer and then check out your co-workers to see what they wear.

If you work in a shop, on a factory floor, or somewhere that doesn’t entertain customers or clients, casual could be more relaxed. In this environment, t-shirts and jeans might be the standard style.

What Does Business Formal Clothing Mean?

Business formal is traditionally a step more conservative and dressier than business professional. This can also be referred to as boardroom attire. It’s the highest level of professional dress and quite often is used to impress or show respect to clients when in meetings.

For men it absolutely means a suit with a tie. You might even want to include a vest to round out that three-piece suit look. Neutral colors and the more somber dark tones tend to go well.

For women a suit is still preferred, but you can wear your suit with pants or a skirt. Plan to wear nylons or tights if you choose a skirt suit. Dark colors are, again, a better choice and a very subtle matching shoe is preferred. A blouse or shirt in a light color is usually best and it needs to be tucked in. Choose your accessories carefully, so they’re not too noticeable or distracting.

Men’s Business Professional Clothing Tips

  • Wear a suit in a dark color that’s neutral

  • Ties should be simple

  • Button-down dress shirts in white, cream, or light pastels

  • No white socks

  • Dress shoes; an oxford or a loafer

  • Brown suits go with brown shoes. Black suits go with black shoes. Grey suits usually go with black shoes. Dark/Olive green suits and navy suits usually go with brown shoes.

  • If your clothing is starting to look worn, outdated, or isn’t fitting well – then it’s time for something new

  • Conservative is the name of the game for you

Women’s Business Professional Clothing Tips

  • A business suit with pants or a skirt is a good idea

  • Have a few button-down oxford-style blouses to mix and match with your suit pieces

  • Blouses that aren’t too low cut or billowy often work well

  • Dresses should come to the knee or lower

  • Select dresses that are so professional, you wouldn’t wear them anywhere else but the office (or maybe a funeral)

  • Most business professional offices require hose, nylons, tights or something along those lines – no bare legs

  • Closed toed shoes and a modest heel is expected

  • Too much jewelry or jewelry that’s very large and distracting is frowned upon

  • Conservative clothing should be your goal

Business Professional Clothing Examples

If you just want a suggestion or two and then want to run to the store, this is the section you want to read. These aren’t the only things you can wear but they’ll get you started. Especially, if you’re just wondering what to wear to an interview.

Men Business Professional Clothing Examples

  • A charcoal grey suit, black dress socks, black dress shoes, a light blue button-down oxford-style shirt, a royal blue tie that has a modest print.

  • A dark brown suit, brown dress socks, brown oxford shoes, a white dress shirt, a silk tie with a subtle floral print.

A note on men’s ties, this year’s men’s tie fashion can be a bit too bold for business professional but it fits right in with business casual. For a more professional look, opt for small prints. Floral prints have made it into the business world quite successfully, so that and paisleys are usually safe.

Women Business Professional Clothing Examples

  • A solid black dress with a modest neckline and a hemline at the knees, black Mary Jane shoes, nude nylons, a simple strand of pearls and earrings to match. You can add a fashion scarf for a little color and personality.

  • Navy pantsuit with a light pink blouse, paired with navy flats. Accessorize with simple hoop earrings.

A note on shoes for women. Shoes are really important – we understand. Unfortunately, not all workplaces do. The key is really to keep your work shoes comfortable and conservative and your play shoes fun. This is a good compromise.

Mistakes to Avoid When It Comes to Dressing Business Professional for an Interview or a Job

There are so many mistakes you can make. From little ones like forgetting to zip up your pants (always do a fly check before heading into the office) to big ones like wearing a rude slogan t-shirt because you want to show off your personality.

If you’re going to a job or interview and the dress code is business professional, avoid the following.

  • Ill-fitting clothing

  • Clothing that is too revealing

  • Stained clothes

  • Wearing white socks

  • Wrinkled clothing

  • Clothing that doesn’t smell fresh

  • Wearing too many accessories

  • Beat up old shoes

  • Bold or busy clothing

  • Deciding to skip the dress code and show your personality

The clothing mistakes above are geared to anyone who is working in a business professional office or interviewing for a job. If you’re interviewing, then dressing a notch (or two) above what will be expected of you on a daily basis is a good idea. It shows respect for the interviewer and the job. It also says that you’re very serious about this position.

Dress Code is Etiquette

Remember that dressing to impress someone isn’t just a good idea, it’s part of business etiquette. It’s just as important as offering a good handshake or greeting, being an active listener, and showing respect. In fact, most business etiquette revolves around respect.

Once you’ve selected an outfit that’s in keeping with the office dress code, you’re going to feel so much more confident when you walk in the door. When you feel like you fit in and look appropriate, it can be a big boost to your confidence. It can even help you nail an interview or rock a first day at work.

Dressing appropriately also signals to the people around you that you’re one of them. You instantly look like you belong, so they’ll accept that you do. It can also help everyone move past appearance and focus on the job at hand. Now that’s a win/win for everyone.

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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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