Dressing Professionally for the Workplace Understanding Proper Professional Attire & Improving Your Wardrobe

Become Team
Become Team
Updated November 17, 2020

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Meet the Experts
Portrait of Catt Medina

Catt Medina

Catt Medina is a career expert and entrepreneur based in Boston, Massachusetts. Catt works with a diverse group of candidates and often coaches them on how to dress professionally, yet comfortably, on a budget. Catt has over 10 years of experience working with prospective talent nationally and locally.

Portrait of Diane Pollock

Diane Pollock

As a women's clothing Designer, Diane has spent over 20 years researching and following countless trends. She has always been the go-to person when friends and family need help shopping or putting together a great outfit. She soon realized that shopping and styling assistance should not be reserved for celebrities with a celebrity bank account, and so she created STYLEMPOWER for the everyday woman. Stylempower saves you time, stops the closet overwhelm and helps create outfits you feel empowered in.

Portrait of Shelley Zansler

Shelley Zansler

Shelley is a writer based in Portland, OR. She earned her BA in English with a writing minor from Portland State University. While at PSU, she volunteered as a writing tutor at a nearby high school, where she helped students prepare for college, craft sincere application essays and improve their overall writing skills so that their voices stand out. Shelley is enthusiastic about helping students navigate college and life after graduation, and she continues providing tips and advice to students of all ages.

In the not-so-distant past, dressing professionally was straightforward; what professionals wore was largely dictated by their gender and the type of work they did. Dressing well in the contemporary workplace, however, is not always so easy to figure out. It's increasingly common for workplaces to steer away from their rigid past. This can be great in a lot of ways – increased comfort and personal expression, for instance – but it also makes pinning down a clear definition of “professional attire” a little tricky. The benefits of understanding professional dress are numerous, and it isn't as difficult or expensive as one might think.

Brush Up on Professional Dress

Some aspects of dressing professionally are fairly obvious, but others can be less clear, especially with rapidly changing fashion trends and many workplaces moving toward more casual dress codes. Take a look at these images and find out whether or not they are appropriate for work, and see if there are better alternatives to swap in.

  • Brown Shoes and Belt

    This is a nice combination for less formal work environments, like a business casual setting. The shoes are nice leather, and they match the belt. However, if in doubt about the level of professionalism required by their workplace, employees may want to opt for classic black shoes and belt.

  • Denim

    Wardrobe consultant and former designer, Diane Pollock, warns against denim in the workplace, even in business casual settings. “For business casual offices, you would have to check the policy on denim,” she says. “Is it acceptable every day, or perhaps just on Fridays?” If employees do decide to go with denim, Pollock advises sticking with darker washes, “and no holes, please.”

  • Boots

    Especially as the weather gets colder, employees may consider putting together some cozy-yet-polished outfits, finished off with a nice pair of boots. This can be fine in casual or business casual settings, but should be avoided in traditional business settings.

  • Heels and Trousers

    Swapping leggings for tailored slacks can keep employees warm while elevating their look. Closed-toed black heels and pantyhose keep the look clean and professional.

  • Tailored Slacks

    These tailored slacks are a more formal pant option that can be dressed up or down with different shirts and shoes. These shoes offer a casual easiness without becoming too informal. The quality is nice and polished without being stuffy.

  • Business Suits

    Both of these are great options for most traditional work settings. The suits are in neutral grays, but the blouse and tie allow for a bit of personality without veering toward too casual or unprofessional. Some environments may require a more polished look, and others may be fine with something more casual, but suits like these are great baseline professional looks.

  • Blazers and Blouses

    Employees who want to dress down a little while still maintaining a professional, polished look can swap suit jackets for tailored blazers and blouses and can play more with color, tie shape, pattern and accessories.

  • Playful Patterns

    These may be work appropriate, depending on the workplace, but they fall into a more casual look. It's best for employees to feel out their workplace culture and formality before relying on more playful looks like these.

Dress to Impress: Understanding Professional Dress

While dressing up for work may seem outdated, there are still some good reasons for professionals to shine their shoes before heading out to the office. The benefits of dressing professionally go beyond simply looking sharp. 41 percent of employers in the U.S. are more likely to promote employees who dress well than those who don't. Sometimes dressing well can result in less quantifiable benefits as well, such as mproving abstract thought and negotiation ability as well as coming off as more confident when meeting new people.

What is “professional dress”?

The answer to this is not always straightforward and can vary by workplace. In general, “professional dress” refers to a certain level of formality in the way someone is expected to dress at their workplace.

How important is formal attire at the workplace?

ln workplaces with clear, established dress codes, formal dress may be very important, and informal dress could result in a write-up or call an employee's commitment into question. Even in environments with more lax dress practices, dressing up can show a level of commitment and respect for the work, which looks good to employers. “When you look put together, you feel confident, and others perceive you that way,” says Pollock. “It can show that you take your job seriously, and coworkers and clients will perceive you as a professional.”

What if my workplace doesn't have a dress code?

It's becoming more common for companies to eschew dress codes, but this rarely means that employees can wear anything they want. If you're unsure what's acceptable and what isn't, ask a manager or HR representative. If all else fails, pay attention to what other employees are wearing and try to match their level of formality.

How formally should I dress at a new job?

Figuring out the culture and dress standards at a new workplace can be tough at first. New hires don't want to look too casual, but finding the sweet spot without overdressing doesn't always happen right away. In general, it's better for new employees to err on the side of formality until they get a good feel for their workplace culture and, if available, a dress code guide. When going in for an interview, look at how other employees are dressed to get a good idea of what attire is expected.

What is the difference between professional, formal, semi-formal, business casual and casual dress?

Discerning between different dress code labels is notoriously difficult, despite how many people come across these terms throughout their lives. In many cases, the labels are somewhat arbitrary. Essentially, these terms serve as guidelines to levels of formality one is expected to present in their clothing, with casual and formal at either end. Check out the next section to get some examples of outfits that fall within these different labels.

Professional Wardrobe Recommendations & Examples

A large part of choosing an appropriate wardrobe for work is determining the level of formality and professionalism required by a workplace.

  • Casual

    Work-appropriate casual attire may consist of nice sweaters or T-shirts, fitted blouses, denim that fits well and is in good condition, skirts, chinos, sneakers and sandals.

  • Business Casual

    Business casual is a step up from casual dress. It's still fairly comfortable and provides a lot of room for personal touches, but it tends to have a bit more polish. Sweaters, vests, button-down shirts, cardigans, skirts, slacks or trousers, golf shirts, khakis and informal but nice shoes may all fall into this category.

  • Smart Casual/Executive Casual

    Smart casual and executive casual take business casual up a notch without falling into the rigidity of traditional business wear. Professionals tend to have more liberty with fashionable or trendy garments, provided they fit well and look polished. Business suits are generally not expected, but blazers and slacks may be a good go-to. Color and pattern can be focal points, as can unique accessories.

  • Traditional Business

    As its name suggests, traditional business attire is the long-standing norm for professional wear, and it's what many people envision when thinking about dressing professionally. Traditional business attire is formal and predominantly comprised of variations on suits. Suits with suit jackets or formal blazers, pencil skirts and dress slacks can be paired with nice button-down shirts, neckties, blouses with high necklines and formal, close-toed shoes. Traditional business outfits can utilize some color, but when in doubt, sticking to neutrals is a good choice. Those who wear skirts should be sure to also wear tights or pantyhose.

  • Business Formal

    Sometimes referred to as boardroom formal, this type of dress is an elevated version of traditional business dress. Simplicity and excellent fit are key to nailing a business formal look. Accessories should be kept to a minimum and should be high quality, and bright colors and patterns should be used sparingly. Collared shirts, tailored suits in dark colors and quality black shoes are the required for business formal attire.

Dressing Professionally on a Budget

Dressing well can be very expensive, but it doesn't have to be. There are plenty of ways to build a professional wardrobe on an entry-level budget.

  • While there may not be a tailored suit hanging around in everyone's closet, there may be a few appropriate items that can be dressed up and paired with work attire. Once people know that they've got a few button-front shirts, nice sweaters, a tie and pair of slacks, they can be sure they don't spend money where it's not needed. Plus, they can keep an eye out for items that match clothes they already have, which can narrow their options when browsing stores.

  • A new outfit for each day really isn't necessary. A few key items will go far. A blazer or suit jacket, nice slacks, a pencil skirt, pantyhose and nice shoes are essential for those looking to build a professional wardrobe. It's worth spending a bit extra on these pieces as they will make up the base of the wardrobe. “A black dress, for instance, can be worn on its own with some great accessories such as a necklace or belt,” says Pollock. “Then the same black dress can serve as a backdrop piece when you wear a great blazer or cardigan over it. Black pants can be worn as a backdrop for multiple blazers, blouses and other tops.” Because they will be used often, staples should be chosen with care. Invest in well-fitting garments made of quality fabrics, like wool or 100-percent cotton, in neutral tones.

  • Nobody will know or care if your go-to blazer came from the end-of-season clearance rack. Getting nice work clothes at a discount is smart, as long as professionals don't conflate inexpensive with cheap and low-quality. Medina points out that looking for sales and using sites like Ebates can help professionals stay within their budgets.

  • Some people can afford to buy nice suits and get rid of them after a few years. Those who cannot afford to splurge upfront can reap the benefits of other people's spring cleaning by looking for work staples at second-hand clothing stores. Nice clothes can last a lifetime, so if they're in good shape, why not take them home?

  • If that thrift store jacket is a huge steal but is also a little big in the shoulders, remember that it can always be tailored. This goes for new clothes bought off the rack, too. A good fit is a worthy investment, because professionals can look polished regardless of how much the garment cost. Pollock reminds professionals that even an expensive suit or blazer can look cheap if it doesn't fit well.

  • Not every piece of an outfit needs to be the pinnacle of quality. While professionals are building their wardrobes, it's okay to stock up on a few inexpensive blouses, collared shirts, sets of pantyhose or other items that act as backdrops for the nice staple pieces. Make nicer garments the focus and pepper in some inexpensive items to save money without sacrificing professionalism.

  • Some colleges, like the University of Florida, have lending closets where students can borrow professional clothes and accessories. While this isn't a permanent solution, it can be useful for young professionals who are just getting started or who don't need to dress up every day. Those who aren't in college can look for community organizations like Clothes That Work in Dayton, Ohio. This nonprofit provides people with interview-appropriate clothes and professional wardrobe training.

  • There's no need to buy everything all at once. Start small, and over time swap cheaper starter garments with higher-quality pieces. This will keep the wardrobe looking current and tailored over time without breaking the bank.

  • Confidence and poise can enhance the quality of any outfit, and it doesn't cost a dime.

5 Key Factors to Consider When Choosing Your
Workplace Attire

After testing their knowledge, checking out some example wardrobes and determining the best ways to bulk up their closets on a budget, professionals should feel more confident in their ability to dress appropriately for their workplace. However, there are a few other important things to take into account when picking out professional attire.

  • 1. Does it fit?

    Don't waste money on clothes that do not fit well. If an ill-fitting piece is inexpensive, use the savings to get it tailored. If it is expensive, it's not worth the poor fit, and the money would be better spent on something that fits nicely.

  • 2. Will it help you achieve your goals?

    How a person dresses can have far-reaching effects. Dressing uniquely may be empowering, but it might also stand in the way of career progression or other professional goals. Consider how wardrobe choices affect your ability to excel and make informed decisions based on that knowledge.

  • 3. What message does it relay?

    First impressions are often made based on a person's clothes, so it's important for professionals to look at their wardrobes through others' eyes when choosing professional attire. Know the part you must play and dress appropriately for that role. For example, Medina's workplace allows employees to dress how they please, but they dress the part depending on their clients. “If we have a customer meeting,” Medina says, “we also research the culture of the company to see what type of organization we are going into.”

  • 4. Does it comply with the dress code and/or workplace culture?

    “These days, there is no such thing as an average workplace,” says Pollock. “Some companies remain corporate, some have become more business casual and some companies accept a completely casual attire.” When picking out professional clothes, make sure to comply with the workplace dress code. Getting a nice pair of slim-fitting dress pants when the code states that only slacks are permissible could reflect poorly on the employee, even if the pants fit well and seem dressy enough. If no dress code is established, take a close look at what those around them wear and even ask around to see what is acceptable.

  • 5. Do you feel good in it?

    Perfect clothes are not everything and wearing outfits that feel wrong can do more harm than good. Dressing slightly down and carrying yourself confidently can make a stronger impact in the workplace than fading away behind a handsome suit. And, as Medina emphasizes, if employees aren't comfortable with their workplace dress code, they can explore career options elsewhere. “One should always go with what is a fit for them. If dressing in a suit, tie, and dress shoes are not for you, then don't apply to that type of organization. Be yourself and join an organization that wants to hire you based on your experience, skills, knowledge and abilities.”

Additional Resources for Professional Attire

Learning to dress professionally and convey a positive image in the workplace can take time. These resources can help employees continue learning about professional attire and get them started on building their wardrobes.

  • Cladwell. This app helps users put together outfits with the clothes they already have. Upload photos of your wardrobe and provide some information about the activities you do, and the app will put together outfit options.

  • Duke Workplace Attire. Duke University's HR department provides a good example of what employees can look for when seeking workplace dress code information.

  • “Five Common Dress Code Violations and How to Address Them”. As important as it is to know how to dress, it's also good to know how not to dress. Human resources company RMI puts together a list of the most common ways people violate workplace dress codes and what they can do to avoid slip-ups.

  • Tie-a-Tie. Everyone who wears a tie should know how to tie it properly. This site provides instructions on various ways to tie a necktie. Those who don't have ties to practice on can even buy some on this site.

  • Trunk Club. Trunk Club is Nordstom's clothing subscription service. Those who need to start from scratch or feel completely lost when buying clothes may find it easier to have someone else do the shopping for them. Provide details about your style and needs, and Trunk Club will send you a nice outfit in a box each month.

Become Team
Become Team
Contributing Writer

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