It’s the struggle to find professional attire that's both flattering and appropriate for the office.What is considered appropriate business attire and what are the 3 types of business attire?
For women, a “business formal” dress code means a business suit, business-style dress or dress with a jacket, as well as stockings (unless it’s summer) and heels, according to The Emily Post Institute. What does smart business attire mean? It's basically synonymous with business formal.
The more relaxed “business casual” refers to skirts, khakis and pants worn with open-collared shirts, knit shirts or a sweater — in addition to the wide variety of dress options. Regardless, whether your office is button-downed or business casual, we’ve got you covered.
Then, of course, casual refers to what you'd wear anywhere else, too — perhaps jeans and a T-shirt!
Why is business attire important? It's important because the way you dress can help you fit into a company culture. If you don't dress the part, it can take a toll on your workplace success.
Here are the business staples you should have in your workplace wardrobe.
Fine, soft merino wool — named for the breed of sheep that supplies the fiber — is an excellent choice. “Merino wool takes up less room than a thick wool sweater in a suitcase. And it’s good to layer with; you’ll be cooler in the heat and warmer in the cold with this kind of wool,” says Mona Sharaf, a New York City-based personal shopper and image consultant for men and women. In addition, “Merino wool has antibacterial properties, so you can wear it longer without it starting to smell. It doesn’t need to be washed as much, and can be hand washed and laid flat to dry. It also dries quickly, and doesn’t wrinkle easily.”
Suits consist of a jacket (often worn over a blouse), and either a skirt or pair of trousers in the same fabric. Lightweight crepe has a distinctively crinkly texture; Sharaf recommends Nora Gardner’s line of "wrinkle-free, stretch crepe suits and separates." Having one or two suits is always a good idea. You never know when the occasion will call for more formal attire, so plan ahead.
Popular and versatile polyester is also good, says Sharaf. It’s lightweight, wrinkle-resistant, hand washable and quick to dry. “It looks as if you’re wearing a silk shirt, but it’s easy to care for. The drawback is it’s less breathable since it’s synthetic, but everyone does polyester,” Sharaf says. Jersey is a soft, stretchy, form-fitting knit fabric. Sharaf particularly likes designer Norma Kamali’s poly jersey clothing: “The clothes never wrinkle, they travel really well, and they last forever — I still have pieces from 10 years ago.”
Like merino wool, polyester is suited to colder weather. If you tend to wear layers, aim to purchase a polyester dress that's mid-calf length so you have a variety of options on how to wear it. Depending on the business etiquette of a specific scenario, you'll want the option to either dress up or down.
In warmer weather, look for trousers, skirts, blouses and suit jackets with semi-synthetic rayon, which is “smooth, wrinkle-resistant, hand washable, and dries quickly,” Sharaf explains. She’s a fan of the brand Bailey 44, with its stretchy rayon, nylon and Spandex separates. With clothes made from this combination of fibers, “You can pack them really small in the suitcase, so you won’t need a garment bag.”
Other warm-weather faves? If you have access to an iron, linen, cotton and silk are all suitable, Sharaf says. Focus on these fabrics when you go shopping for pants, skirts, dress shirts and other traditional business attire.
Meeting the CEO? To make your outfit more formal, “Always go with a pencil skirt,” Sharaf says. “It fits straight down the body and ends at the knee.” Pencil skirts come in a variety of materials, including cotton, jersey, and wool; for the best fit, choose one made from a medium-weight fabric.
If you work in a less formal environment, you can focus on more casual attire. Here are few pieces of casual business attire you can bring from your living room to the boardroom, while still appearing professional.
Most Americans own jeans, and denim is becoming ever more popular at the office. Another plus? “Jeans pack really well,” says Sharaf, who is a fan of the brand Joe’s Jeans. If you want to look more dressed up, choose a dark-colored, slim-fitting pair and add a belt if necessary.
Sharaf also offers the following business attire tips:
Determining what professional attire fits your business dress code is tricky. With Sharaf's advice, along with some additional company dress code research of your own, you'll know what to wear. Women — we've got business attire options, so let's take advantage of them!
Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in City Limits, Paste, Library Journal, and other titles. She lives in New York City with her husband, son, and many toy trucks.