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Dress to Impress: What To Wear At Work

At the heart of office etiquette lies the issue of dress code. While each office has its own nuances and rules when it comes to attire (some of which opt to have work uniforms), the workplace clothing climate can be broadly divided into four categories; Business formal, business professional, business casual and casual. There’s a great deal of crossover between these, with some offices moving between categories thanks to dress down days (usually Fridays). Different departments in the same company can also be subject to different dress codes, depending on who deals with clients or attends events.

Let’s take a look at the four dress code categories and break them down:

Business formal

Professional service industries such as law and management consultancy consistently wear formal business attire. This formality lends a certain sense of gravitas to the individuals wearing it, inspiring confidence in their clients.

But what’s acceptable? Top end matching suits in conservative colors with ties and minimal, high quality accessories of a correspondingly conservative nature are ideal for business formal. The legal TV drama program, Suits, illustrates the beautiful, high-end outfits that epitomize this mode of attire.

Do not, however, mistake high-end luxurious outfits for clothing that is overly tight-fitting or revealing. High standards of decency and decorum should always come first and foremost. Sites like Banana Republic, Holt Renfrew and Nordstrom have a selection of suits and business attire for both men and women.

The debatable point here is that of high heels. Though widely regarded as the smartest form of footwear for women, a recent outcry against this has challenged sexist expectations that women must wear heels in order to conform to the formal business attire dress code. A recent government report actually concluded that such stipulations are against the law, with employers being either ignorant to or uncaring of the pain that heels cause women. This pain is felt within an average of 1 hour 7 minutes of putting on high heels.

Business professional

In a slightly less strict version of formal business attire, professional business wear is what you would likely imagine if you pictured a stereotypical city office. Financial offices, professional start-ups, sales business and client-facing roles will likely all need to conform to this dress code. Patterns can be a little more jazzy, with brighter colors and more prominent accessories allowing for a greater degree of personalization within the outfit than formal wear.

Bear in mind that conservatism remains the most important factor in any work-based fashion choice. This is applicable across business-wear and isn’t limited to any single dress code.

With business professional there is less of a debate as to whether high-heels are actually required, with this stipulation becoming more of a choice.

Find a selection of business professional attire on sites like Betabrand and department stores such as Hudson’s Bay and Macy’s.

Business casual

Business casual can be a nightmare if you’re not fully aware of what it means. This is because, in part at least, business casual can mean very different things in different settings. If in doubt, dress to impress. Over-dressing will be considered smart and impressive in a casual office and causes little or no embarrassment at misjudging the dress code. Underdressing, however, can be a cardinal sin when starting a new job or meeting a new client and will set the whole relationship off on the wrong foot. First impressions do matter.

So, when dressing for business casual, what can you actually wear? Colorful shirts and blouses, statement jewellery  and a more varied wardrobe can work well for these outfits. Business tops and trousers/ skirts must still maintain the all-important level of conservatism and be neat and smart. They don’t, however,  need to be part of a matching suit in a business casual dress code; your outfit simply needs to co-ordinate well to look professionally put together. Whilst maintaining the core materials of business professional – shirts, suit trousers or skirts – you can also add other textures by introducing a sports jacket, more casual scarf or smart jumper.

Find business casual clothes at shops like H&M, J Crew and Reitmans.


Whilst you might deem most of the clothes in your wardrobe to be ‘casual’, there is a difference between your weekend attire and casual workwear. This type of dress code can vary greatly from company to company, so if you are unsure what yours means when they say casual, you can take cues from what your boss and coworkers are wearing. Or simply just ask.

The most important questions to ask yourself when deciding on your casual workwear are:

  • Do I feel professional and able to perform my job to the best of my ability in this outfit?
  • Could anything I’m wearing cause any offense to anyone in the office?
  • Would I feel comfortable meeting with the CEO in this outfit?

If the answer to any of these is no, your outfit is probably not appropriate for the workplace. Dress with discretion; understand that bare feet (in flip-flops), bare midriffs and overly tight or suggestive clothing are all absolutely off limits.

Business attire can be confusing and difficult to navigate. When you’re going in for your first day of a new job or an interview with a potential employer, it is tricky to know how to dress. In both of those cases, we would recommend overdressing a little to put your best foot forward.

Maintaining a certain degree of professionalism in your attire will ensure that you maintain a smart way of thinking and won’t ever be held back by preconceptions formed on the basis of your clothing.

About the Author Alexandra Jane

Alexandra Jane writes graduate careers advice for Inspiring Interns, who specialize in matching candidates to their dream internship. Check out their graduate jobs listings for roles.