When you wear appropriate business attire every day, you make the instant impression that you are professional, well-educated and financially comfortable. Your business attire telegraphs your self-esteem and makes a statement about your value to the success of your organization.

How You Look Determines
How You are Judged

Fair and accurate or not, we all make snap judgments about people based on how they look – their clothes, accessories and grooming. Image Dynamics says that 55% of the opinion people form about others is based on their appearance.

Selecting the right business attire isn’t a simple “one size fits all” proposition. So when you are standing in front of your closet wondering what to wear on any particular day, how do you decide?

What Influences Your Choice
of Business Attire?

Wardrobe and image consultant Diana Pemberton-Sikes recommends your business attire should be influenced by the following: the type of business you are in, your corporate culture and your audience.

Your Business Type

Traditional businesses like law, banking, finance, accounting, high-level corporate, etc. require traditional business attire. This look says you are authoritative, conservative and competent.

People businesses like teaching, real estate, sales, medicine, social work, etc. call for business attire that both conveys expertise but is non-threatening. This look says you are trustworthy, approachable and knowledgeable.

Artistic businesses like advertising, art, fashion, writing, entertainment, decorating, etc. call for a more expressive mode of business attire. This look says you are creative, unique and contemporary.

Your Corporate Culture

Different companies in the same business may have very different dress codes, anywhere along the spectrum from very strict to very relaxed. Select your business attire so you “fit in”. (This is especially important when it comes to “business casual”.)

Your Audience

Your audience is comprised of the people who most influence your paycheck: your clients, potential clients, management, colleagues, staff, etc. Appropriate business attire enables you:

  • Relate to them
  • Fit their perceived image of someone in your role

Think about who you will be interacting with on any given day then dress for the most important member of your audience!

Business Attire:
General Guidelines

Always remember the right business attire is an important factor in your career advancement. Be sure the image you project is the one you want!


  • No matter what your age, your business attire should be as professional as possible. Avoiding fads and going with a conservative look is always safest, especially when you are new to a position.

  • Start with a skirted suit or pants suit for the most conservative look. (With few exceptions, dresses do not convey the same credibility unless they are worn with a matching jacket.) Pinstripes are a classic business look – when the pinstripes are thin and widely spaced. Thick stripes closer together are a trendy look but are not appropriate. Wardrobe pieces that always work include a:

    Jacket with notched lapel, shawl collar or no lapel
    Double breasted jacket
    Short or long jacket that complements your body type and height
    Fully lined jacket
    Slim skirt with no pockets

  • Skirts should be knee-length, slightly above or slightly below. This length is not only more attractive but a length that suits most women. A skirt more than two inches above the knee raises eyebrows and questions.

  • Pants should break at the top of the foot or shoe and never hit the floor in back.

  • Blouses and sweaters provide a solid color and variety to a woman’s wardrobe, but should be appealing, not revealing. Be sure they are the correct size so they aren’t too tight or gap when they are buttoned.

  • Women should wear hose in a business environment. Neutral or flesh-tone hose are best with light colored clothing; black or navy are fine with black or navy clothes. Always keep an extra pair of hose in a desk drawer.

  • Wear conservative shoes. Well-polished flats or low heel (up to two inches) pumps are best. Open-toe or backless shoes are totally inappropriate for the office even if they are a current fashion rage. Be sure the soles are in good shape and the heels are not obviously worn.

  • Take care of your wardrobe. Hang clothes outside your closet for 24 hours after wearing them so they will be fresh to wear again. Keep everything clean and pressed.


  • Makeup. Choose a subtle, well-blended look, natural but not bare. Accentuate your eyes and lips – your two best communication tools – but avoid heavy doses of eyeliner or eye shadow.

  • Hair. A smart look is one that is above the shoulder or worn up. Invest in a good-looking, easy care cut that is currently in style. Avoid styles that you have to keep brushing back from your face. Wash your hair every day, but never arrive at the office with your hair still wet.

  • Hands and nails. Especially if you “talk” with your hands, keep them moisturized and stay with subtle nail polish colors or a coat of clear polish. If you have your nails done professionally, be sure they are not too long!

  • Perfume. It’s preferable not to wear perfume in the office. Save it for evenings or special occasions.

  • Absolutely no multiple body piercings or visible tattoos.
  • Jewelry. Less is more. High quality costume jewelry is fine, except for your rings and they should be real gold or silver. Wear only one ring on each hand and one earring in each ear. Don’t wear flashy jewelry or bracelets that jangle whenever you move your hand. Pearls, real or simulated, are always in style.

  • Scarves. Here’s where women can introduce a flattering color or favorite pattern to otherwise conservative attire.

  • Briefcases and handbags. Both should be as small as practicable while remaining functional. The best colors are black, brown and burgundy. For women, carrying a flat folio or briefcase is preferable to a large, hard-sided one.

Generally, good business attire should include clothes that are comfortable, that don’t itch, ride up or bind when you sit down. Dress to suit your personality while keeping professional standards in mind.

Don't Mistake Business Casual
With Business Careless

There are as many definitions of business casual as there are organizations across the country. The definition of business casual is a function of the corporate culture, so your best bet is to err on the side of conservatism until you’ve had a chance to observe and/or ask.

At the office, or if you are invited to an business event that specifies “business casual attire”, you should be fine if you wear:

  • A neatly pressed pair of slacks
  • A dressed down shirt (patterned or plain, men’s cut shirt) tucked in and belted if there are belt loops on your slacks
  • Loafers or closed-toe flats
  • Add a jacket or blazer if you want to dress it up just a bit

A good rule of thumb is: if you would wear it to the beach, to the gym, to a dance club, to do yard work, or to play a sport (except for a golf shirt), it does not qualify as business casual.

Why Have a Business Casual Dress Code?

Countless studies have shown that there’s a direct correlation between how people dress and how they think, feel and act or behave, and how others react or respond.

Companies that adopt a casual dress code do so to enable employees to project professionalism while experiencing the comfort of more relaxed clothing. They believe:

  • Casual wear makes you appear more friendly and relatable than traditional business attire.
  • Employees are more relaxed in comfortable clothes and tend to be more at ease with their coworkers.
  • Casual days boost employee morale.

On the flip side, a survey of over 500 large and small companies that had adopted casual dress codes reported:

  • Relaxed attitudes leading to relaxed performance
  • Increased late arrivals and early departures
  • Increased inappropriate conversations
  • Increased provocative actions
  • Decreased mannerly behavior
  • Decreased productivity and quality
  • Decreased commitment to the company

So today, some 84% of companies with 2,000 employees or more have a business casual dress code, according to a survey by Mercer Human Resources Consulting. These policies exist not so much to encourage business casual as to define its limits. And the courts have upheld a company’s right to enforce a dress code!

Unacceptable business casual attire for women includes:

Bare-midriff tops
T-shirts with offensive language or graphics
Flip flops
Micro miniskirts
Visible lingerie
Spandex exercise clothing
Sweat shirts and pants
Short shorts
Sun dresses
Spaghetti-strap dresses or camisoles
Tank tops
Halter tops
Shiny or see-through fabrics
Ripped jeans
Flowing, floor-length skirts or pants

Every woman manager’s motto should be “Business Casual is OK. Business Careless is NOT!

A Finishing Touch

You don’t have to be a “fashionista” to dress for success! And you don’t have to spend a fortune either.

  • Try something new with your hair. Ask for a “smart and sassy” look.
  • If you love some of the new trends but don’t want a whole new wardrobe, experiment with scarves, blouses and accessories in new fabrics and styles.
  • If you’re bored with your current wardrobe, have a friend look through your closet and suggest some new combinations you may have overlooked.
  • And my personal favorite - have a clothes-swapping party. Clean everything out of your closet that doesn’t fit or work any more and have some friends do the same. Get together and breathe new life into everyone’s wardrobe.

A great set of management skills will open a lot of doors for you. Selecting appropriate business attire adds a level of sophistication to your credibility!