Smart business attire: Dressing for success (with examples)

Smart business attire: Dressing for success (with examples)
SEEK content teamupdated on 23 November, 2023
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When it comes to making a lasting impression in that interview or at work, what you wear matters. Dressing professionally speaks to your commitment, attention to detail, and shows respect for the role, your colleagues, managers, clients and the business.

From commanding a boardroom to leaving an impression at networking events, it all starts by dressing for success. When we feel good in our clothes, it shows! Which is why taking care in your selection can help boost your confidence and get you into a winning mindset.

In this guide, we explore the various facets of smart corporate attire, and how to master the art of dressing for success.  

Where did ‘business attire’ come from?

Prior to the 1990’s, business dress codes were pretty cut and dry - as a term, it strictly meant suits (blazers and suit pants) for both men and women. Casual Fridays or relaxed office wear at this point was simply non-existent. So, what was big enough to shake up office wear standards globally? 

The internet! Yes, believe it or not, the world wide web did more than transform how we work (like sending electronic notes-or emails-to colleagues in minutes), it also gave us a more relaxed way of dressing. It was around this time that ‘business casual’ was born.

Over time, this new way of dressing evolved into a little more casual than business, with many studies finding a link between what you wear and its impact on your productivity (with ‘too casual’ seeing a dip). As a response, businesses started introducing dress codes in the 2000s, resulting in a spectrum of new expectations around corporate attire. 

What is business attire?

It’s any kind of clothing you wear in a professional setting, like an office or studio. Given that each workplace has its own brand image, modern business corporate attire can mean many things, but they all generally fall into one of three categories - formal, business casual, and casual. 

Different dress code types

Understanding the different dress code types can help you get a handle on what your colleagues, managers, customers or clients expect from you. Here we’ll go into what each dress code means, and how to pick the right pieces for that meeting, interview, or event.

Formal corporate attire

Similar to ‘black tie’ but a little more reserved, business formal sets the tone for the most formal occasions in the corporate world. It's the type of attire you'd wear to key evening events like awards ceremonies, fundraising dinners, balls, galas, and the like. 

Think black suit and tie for men, and elegant dresses or ensembles for women. You can elevate your look with the right accessories, like a sleek belt, cufflinks and tie clip for the gents, and sophisticated but minimal jewellery for the ladies. It’s a conservative and polished look, and the rules of formal and ‘black tie’ are fairly strict, so it’s important to refer to your workplace’s corporate dress code if you’re not sure what’s expected. 

Here are some examples of how you can dress to impress at your next business formal event.

Examples of corporate & business formal for women

business attire female tailored skirt formal outfit black tie

business attire female tailored skirt formal outfit black tie

business attire female tailored skirt formal outfit black tie

There are so many options for women in the workplace, but what is considered business formal? For women, you can’t go wrong with a beautiful evening dress for those black-tie events. Otherwise, a tailored skirt or pants suit, a blouse, closed-toe pumps, and subtle accessories create a commanding presence for those formal meetings or networking events. 

Or for gala dinners, think beautiful, modest-cut full length dresses, a clutch and some statement heels to round out the look. 

Remember, you want to be comfortable too! So choose business formal wear that you feel good in.

Examples of corporate & business formal attire for men

Smart business attire suit formal business attire outfit black tie

Black man smart business attire outfit attire

Asian man smart business attire corporate business attire

Business formal for men generally means a tailored suit and tie in a dark colour, such as black or navy, with a lighter coloured button-down dress shirt, and polished dress shoes such as Oxfords or loafers. 

You may choose to take it up a notch or two by adding a waistcoat as well, just remember to either match it to the suit colour itself, or keep it neutral. If you really want to add a touch of colour, then a tie or pocket square is the perfect place to do so!

Business professional attire

Less formal than business formal, business professional attire maintains a feeling of conservatism while allowing for some creativity. Think of everyday professional settings where a more traditional attire is used, such as legal offices, political offices, finance offices, or companies with a more strict dress code. Business dress can change, so always check if you’re not sure. 

For men, it usually means a suit as the base, paired with a crisp business shirt and polished dress shoes. In some cases a tie may be optional. You could add an accessory like a watch or belt to tie your look together. 

The female look has more options, such as tailored dresses, skirts, or pants with coordinated blouses or tops. Accessories can be slightly bolder, adding a touch of personality and vibrancy.

Business casual attire

Business casual is less formal than your traditional office attire, but not as casual as a tracksuit and a T-shirt. It strikes a balance between professional and relaxed, giving you a little more room to express yourself with colours and patterns. 

Incorporating elements from both professional dress and casual, business casual is often described as neat, tidy and polished. More traditional options like pants and business skirts are complemented by relaxed items like chinos and dark jeans. There are plenty of options when it comes to tops, from classic button-downs to sweats, blouses or even polo shirts. If you want to dress up your look, you can add a cardigan, blazer or a coat - particularly during colder months. As for your footwear, close-toed shoes like loafers, Oxfords, boots and flats are a great option. You can also use heels to dress-up some jeans or sandals during the warmer months - just leave your thongs at home! 

When it comes to your accessories, the key is to keep it simple. Use subtle additions of jewellery or even a belt and scarf to add a touch of your own personal style. 

Business casual attire can be appropriate for a variety of occasions, from client meetings to working in the office.  As a happy medium between formal and casual, it can also be the go-to choice when the dress code is unclear. 

Examples of business casual attire

Smart business attire men business attire female

Smart business attire men business attire female

How to dress for success in business

Dressing for success isn’t just about the types of clothing, it can also come down to the colours and fabrics. While a business dress code may not directly state the colours or fabrics, it’s still something worth paying attention to. 

The colour of your clothes has an impact

While colour can be a great way to show off your personality, you may find that certain settings require a more subtle palette. Neutral colours like black, navy or brown can be great and safe office staples. 

They can also work well for formal events like a gala or black-tie occasion. That’s not to say that colour should be avoided - just used in the right setting. If your workplace leans more to business casual, then bright colours can be a great way to add a flair to your outfit and even give you some extra confidence! 

Different fabrics play a role in your work clothes

Aside from the colour, pay attention to the fabrics. Not only do you want to look great, but you should feel comfortable throughout the work day. Choose fabrics that allow for movement and breathability to enhance your comfort throughout the day. You may also want to think about how you work. 

Take linen for example - while it’s comfortable, linen is generally a more ‘casual’ and ‘relaxed’ fabric, which may not be suitable for all workplaces as it wrinkles easily. While in more formal workplaces, you could opt for traditional poly-cotton blend blazers, or elevate the look with a velvet blazer or tie. 

How your clothes fit can make a big difference

Along with the fabrics, pay attention to how your clothes fit. Well-fitted outfits can elevate your appearance and create a seamless put-together look. A tailored suit speaks volumes and allows for a more commanding presence. 

While outfits that do not fit properly (think oversized jumpers, suit blazers with sleeves that are too long, etc) may leave you feeling uncomfortable while you’re trying to focus, or struggling to be taken seriously.  

It’s the small details that count

Now you have the colour, fabric and fit all worked out, what about the smaller details? Accessories like your shoes, belt, bag, jewellery and more all help to tie your look together when you’re adhering to a dress code. 

Business formal, for instance, needs a little more attention to these aspects than, say, casual. It all depends on how you want to be perceived by your managers and colleagues. This also includes personal grooming - a polished appearance goes hand-in-hand with your attire to capture that ever-important first impression.

Cultural considerations in professional attire

Understanding and respecting cultural differences is crucial - including business professional attire. Since different cultures can have different standards of formality and modesty, it’s important to take note and dress appropriately. 

But how do you consider dressing for cultural differences? If you’re meeting with someone with a different cultural background to you, consider researching the dress etiquette of their culture. You may find that you need to adapt your attire to suit. This can be particularly important for international meetings - especially if you’re visiting another country. In this case, you may find it best to opt for attire that is on the formal side, showing respect and consideration for their culture. 

Business attire mistakes to avoid

With so many dress codes spanning different attire for different occasions on different days, it can be a little confusing as to how to dress for work. It’s important to remember that everyone makes mistakes, and not to be too hard on yourself if you miss the mark the first time. To help you out, here are some key business corporate attire mistakes to avoid:

  • Dressing too casually: Even with a ‘business-casual’ dress code, it is possible to take it a bit too far! Steer clear of flip-flops (thongs), a printed tee or jeans that are a little ‘well worn’!
  • Wearing clothes that are too revealing: Generally, the office is a conservative place and requires professional dress, so it’s important to reflect this in your work clothes. 
  • Overdoing the accessories: While a watch and a few bits of jewellery are fine, you don’t want to add too much razzle-dazzle! Limit your accessories, so you don’t detract from your viewpoint or message.
  • Wearing untailored or ill-fitting clothes: This one is pretty noticeable, so if you have a suit that doesn’t quite fit you right, perhaps think about getting it tailored for a better fit.

Business attire for special occasions

Special occasions require a case-by-case approach to your outfit. There are many different circumstances you’ll encounter where expectations on how you dress will change. 

Generally, you can get a good idea by understanding the business, event or show you’re attending. But for all those other times, here are the main dress codes to consider for special occasions.

Dressing for job interviews and career fairs

So you’ve landed a job interview, and the company culture seems quite relaxed, from the research you’ve done online. 

Does this mean you can dress a bit more casual? It may come as a surprise, but unless they specifically tell you not to dress too formally for interviews, it’s best to dress up. 

As a base, job interviews call for professional outfits. Not only does it tell the interviewer you’re taking it seriously, it can also get you into that winning mindset to nail it! 

That goes for career fairs too - you never know who you might meet or make an impression on, so it’s always best to dress more formally for the occasion.

Dressing for conferences and trade shows

If your company doesn’t have specific uniforms for these events, it can be difficult to know what to wear. In these instances, a conference would require formal wear, such as slacks and a button-up shirt in a neutral colour. 

Trade shows can sometimes be a little more casual, meaning a polo or company-branded tee may be appropriate. 

Although if you’re ever unsure, check with your boss or HR department.

Dressing for networking events and professional mixers

For networking events your outfit should be polished yet approachable, allowing you to make those meaningful first impressions and establish connections. 

There’s a general expectation of business formal or business casual attire for these events, and can depend on where the event is hosted, the time of the mixer, and the industry it’s for. 

Dressing for company events and holiday parties

Of course, dressing for company events and holiday parties really depends on what the event is and what the party is for. 

Christmas parties are generally relaxed, allowing for casual wear within the limits of general business expectations. Company events can be relaxed or formal, for instance an Annual General Meeting calls for formal outfits, while a sausage sizzle on the work patio is a more relaxed vibe, where business casual is appropriate.

In the world of business, your appearance speaks volumes. It isn't just about following dress codes; it's about using clothing as a tool to show your professionalism, confidence, and authority. 

By understanding the various dress code types, adhering to cultural considerations, and avoiding common mistakes, you can master the art of dressing for success. Remember, the way you dress is a reflection of your personality as well as the dedication to your role and respect for the opportunities that come your way.

FAQs

What should I wear for a job interview?

Like the old adage says ‘It’s better to be overdressed than under-dressed’. So for a job interview, opt for a professional look. A well-fitting suit, a conservative shirt or blouse, and polished shoes will leave a positive first impression. Even if you know the company dress code is more casual than this, dressing more professionally will show your prospective employer you are well presented and eager to be considered for the role.

Can I wear jeans in business casual attire?

In some business casual environments, well-fitted dark jeans may be acceptable. Always check your workplace dress code first, and if you’re still unsure, clarify with your manager or supervisor before donning your denim.

How do I choose the right colours for business attire?

Generally speaking, outfits tend to be mostly dark, muted neutral colours such as black, navy, brown, dark green, or grey. However you can add a pop of colour in the form of a tie or blouse (even if it’s a professional workplace). 

As always, be guided by your specific workplace dress code, and what others in the office are wearing. If in doubt, ask your manager or HR manager for advice.

How important is grooming for business attire?

Grooming is as vital to your overall appearance as the right outfit. You want your carefully selected clothes to be accompanied by clean nails, brushed hair, well-groomed beard or a clean-shaven look. 

Always make sure you are clean, tidy, smell pleasant, and are well groomed.

Is it necessary to wear a tie with a business suit?

It is not always essential to wear a tie with a business suit. In professional settings, a tie is common, but in business casual environments, you might opt to go without. 

Check with your business dress code if you’re unsure.

Are there any specific guidelines for wearing makeup or jewellery in business attire?

While makeup can be a form of personal expression, when it comes to business It’s best to keep makeup and jewellery understated and professional. 

You can absolutely wear accessories, just opt for those that are minimal, not too flashy or oversized, and have a sophisticated feel. At the workplace, less is more.

Can I wear sneakers with business casual attire?

Yes, in some workplaces sneakers are acceptable as long as they are clean, not too casual in colour or style and if your workplace dress code allows for them, of course! 

Opt for dressy sneakers such as those made of leather or suede, and choose either lace- up or zipper styles as these will look more appropriate than slip on styles.

How do I dress appropriately for a business dinner or client meeting?

For business dinners or client meetings, lean towards more formal attire. A tailored suit or dress, paired with appropriate accessories, is a safe choice that will not only make a good impression, it’ll also make you feel good!

Is it acceptable to wear clothing with visible branding or logos in a business setting?

Unless the business logo is for your current employer, no. Unless your workplace is at the more casual scale of the ‘business casual’ spectrum, and specifies this is OK, it’s best to avoid visible branding or logos. They may not convey the level of professionalism expected in a business setting.

What are some budget-friendly options for business attire?

Many retailers offer affordable yet stylish clothes. Look for sales, outlet stores, and online retailers to find budget-friendly options that still maintain a professional appearance. 

Try to create a capsule wardrobe of carefully-selected pieces that work together, so you can maximise the number of outfits you can create while minimising your spend.

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