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"Business Formal" Is Changing — Here's What You Need To Know
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Dr. Amanda Riojas image
Dr. Amanda Riojas,
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@AKAdocbrown | Women, Minorities, & Moms in STEM
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A beautiful envelope with curly, handwritten script has arrived in the office mail. Your name and title are perfectly written with a flourish on the envelope. After carefully pulling the wax seal, you slide out a matching, invitation on thick card stock. Across the top, you read:

"You are cordially invited to attend the Executive Dinner..."

Underneath, you recognize the host's name as your boss's boss's boss. The location is an upscale hotel near the office, and in tiny — but uppercase — letters, you read the words, "BUSINESS FORMAL."

What's formal dress code?

Corporate dinners, conferences and awards banquets are all common events to wear "business formal" attire. When informal business casual is your regular dress code, how are you supposed to know what business formal attire means?  What's formal dress code?

Business formal may conjure up ideas from 1990s courtrooms — a traditional black business suit with dark, closed-toe flats or pumps. No bright, colorful or "distracting" clothing allowed. The millennial generation grew up with dress codes that tended to sexualize and discriminate against young girls. Now, these girls are young women entering the professional workplace, and dress code guidelines are changing to reflect that workplaces are not just a boys' club. That dated, sexist dress code is now unacceptable, and formal business professional attire can be fashionable and functional.

But what are the rules for discerning casual attire from business formal attire? Here are a few easy starting guidelines for the modern-day "business formal." It will let your personality shine through while maintaining a professional appearance.

1. Dresses

Photo via Instagram // @whatveewore

Don't reinvent the wheel! For many women, business formal is a way of life, so emulating the professional styles of the pros is a great place to start.

For instance, First Lady Michelle Obama is the perfect example of feminine business formal. Best known for her sleeveless gowns and dresses, the marigold Narciso Rodriguez dress that Mrs. Obama wore to her husband's final State of the Union is one of her most memorable looks. The dress is sleeveless but high-collared, and the cut is just below the calf. It's a great choice for business formal attire because it works for a variety of women's body types — it can be paired with virtually any height or style of shoe and, though it's still a sleeveless dress, it's quite conservative due to the high collar.

For the petite, thinner woman who’s worried about drowning in a sea of blazer fabric, try a button-down shirt dress with a collar and long sleeves: the collar and buttons can give the impression of a more polished look, while a thick belt can be used to define the waist. Pair it with dark leggings and pumps for a more classic look.

Ultimately, dresses are a staple for working women.

2. Pantsuits

Photo via Instagram // @meadow_official

The pantsuit is another popular option, especially when most of your fellow attendees will be men in dark grey or charcoal suits. Take a cue from Hollywood awards shows, where business formal should be personal and fun. In 2015, Miranda Kerr wore a simple, white Calvin Klein jacket and pant to the ELLE Women in Hollywood event. This look is easy to adapt by using a less revealing top and personalized shoes or jewelry. TheChagoury Couture pantsuit that Regina Hall wore to the 2014 BET awards is another personal favorite of mine: it’s classy yet comfortable. She chose to go without an undershirt for this look, but a simple dress shirt can be added for a pop of color.

3. Accessories

Photo via Instagram // @heelsandvalleys

When you want to stand out but not too much, accessories can be an effective way to blend in with the grey blazer crowd, while still abiding to the business casual dress code. You don't need to plan for black tie or white tie attire here. If anything, this is where it helps to have seen all 20 seasons of "Law and Order;" the actresses who played the female lawyers were styled conservatively and professionally, perfect for a business formal event.

Actress Alana de la Garza, who played Assistant District Attorney Connie Rubirosa, was often dressed in dark-on-dark blazers, blouses and slacks to match her dark hair. This look was usually complemented by a small, elegant piece of jewelry. A piece that you wear often can add a personal touch to an otherwise ordinary outfit, as well as serve as a conversation starter.

In contrast, ADA Serena Southerlyn, played by Elizabeth Röhm, is a fair-skinned blonde with light eyes. Her stylists put her in light blues, tan and even lavender on occasion. The muted pastel undershirts offered a soft contrast to the darker greys and charcoals of her suits — as well as the darker blues and greys worn by her fellow actors.

4. Blazers

Photo via Instagram // @tatiana_amada_luxury_concept

Make the clothes work for you — including your blazer. A blazer is perfect, so long as it fits. Full disclosure: I’m only 5’3’’ and am a broad-shouldered, thick-thighed lady. It took a long time for me to stop saying, 'I don’t fit in these clothes' when I’m shopping. Instead, say, 'these clothes don’t fit on me.' If you have an unusual body type or if clothes tend to fit well in one or two areas but not so well everywhere else, your local tailor is going to be your best friend. If a blazer doesn’t fit across the shoulders, buy a size larger and have it taken in; if the extra-long skinny slacks still aren’t long enough, get a size or two larger and have them taken in. (When the tailor asks, repeat after me: 'yes, you can cut the extra material.' Everything will fit much leaner and straighter.)

Lastly, the odds are good that, despite your best efforts, you’ll still run into men and women who will be offended by your… natural assets. You can’t please everyone, but if you work in an especially conservative workplace or are attending an event that you expect will be particularly modest, there are a few tricks that you can incorporate. To downplay a larger chest, high collars eliminate the question of too much cleavage. And, if you’re working with more in the trunk, a long knee-length skirt will draw the eyes downward (toward the rocking heels you picked) and will look great with a blazer.

Overall, it’s important to be comfortable and to choose professional attire that works for you. As with formal wear, confidence is the key to pulling off any business formal clothing. The extra time that you put in to add your personality will ensure that you leave a lasting impression.

For more ways to promote women in leadership positions, see "10 Ways to be Unbeatable in the Office," or use this guide to "10 Tough Interview Questions We All Secretly Hate" to get a leg up on the competition.

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Dr. Amanda G. Riojas is a Scientific Computing Researcher living in Austin, TX. She is also the Advice Section Editor for the Scientista Foundation Advice Blog, Liaison to the Corporation Associates Committee of the American Chemical Society, and Chair of the ACS Central TX Local Section Women Chemists Committee. Amanda basically spends all of her time trying to tell everyone that women are awesome — because she has a daughter now and wants her to know that girls can do anything.

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