How to Dress Professionally: Business Dress Code Basics - College Fashion

How to Dress Professionally: Business Dress Code Basics

Learn the basics of business dress codes. Features descriptions of Business Casual and Business Formal dress. Also: where to shop for each dress code.
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Woman wearing business dress code outfit standing in front of an office building

Here's another great reader question that definitely deserved its own article series!

"I live in NYC (where fashion is on every block) and it's so hard to be stylish and look professional. Example: My internship holds professional networking events and casual networking events. I went to both and at both I wore pants, dress shirt, sweater vest or skirt, dress shirt, blazer. However, at the casual networking event another intern looked fantastic in a black and white print cap sleeve dress, opaque tights, and patent leather mary jane heels. She accessorized with a black cardigan and diamond earrings. It was perfect for a casual networking event....of course these categories apply to my life!"

I definitely think you should post some ideas on how to dress for an interview, a seminar, volunteer work, every day work, professional networking, casual networking

The "What To Wear To Work" Question

Dressing for a job, an interview, an internship, a networking event, etc. is a source of anxiety for everyone at some point in their career. Each company and event is different, so it can be nerve-racking not knowing what the proper dress code is, what you can and can't wear, etc. You want to make the best impression, of course, and your clothes say a lot about you and who you are!

There's also the question of what season it is, what city you're working in, whether you walk to work or not, and whether you'll be sitting or standing most of the time, among other concerns! That's a lot to think about, so it's no wonder so many people feel frustrated with this kind of thing!

As a graduate of business school with years of experience, I know a lot about this stuff and have tons of tips to get your wardrobe right in a professional setting - without sacrificing style, of course.

Over the next few days, I'm going to be posting articles about all the different professional events you might need to dress for, so you'll know what to wear in any business situation!  There will be outfit examples and budget-friendly options as well.  Sound good? 

EDIT: Here are the next posts in this series: How to Dress for a Job InterviewWhat to Wear to Work (Or An Internship), and How to Dress for Networking Events.

To start off, I'm going to go over career-wear basics.  When your boss tells you that a certain dress code will be mandatory at tonight's networking event, do you know what she means?  Check the handy guide below for all the info you need.

Types of Business Attire

There are 3 main types of "business dress" that you need to understand before we get into dressing for specific events. These are probably terms you've heard before, but after reading this, you should have a good understanding of what clothes work for what dress code. The three types of dress codes are: Professional Dress, Business Casual and Campus Casual.

1. Professional Dress

Brooks Brothers suit is an example of a business formal outfit for the business professional dress code

An example of Business Professional attire from Brooks Brothers

Business professional attire is the most conservative type of business wear.  It's what you'll be expected to wear in the office if you work in accounting, finance, or other conservative industries (or if you just have a really conservative boss!)  For women, this means a business suit or pants suit, or dress and jacket.  For men, professional dress means a business suit or a blazer, dress pants and a tie. 

Where to shop for professional dress clothing: Brooks Brothers, Ann Taylor (women only), Men's Wearhouse (men only), and Nordstrom's Women's Suits (women only).

2. Business Casual

Business casual attire: Outfit example from Ann Taylor

Example of business casual dress code outfit from Ann Taylor

Business casual attire is a more relaxed version of "Professional Dress", but it doesn't mean you're actually going to be "casual"!  This is likely going to be your office dress code if you work in a semi-conservative workplace, but some interviews and events may also call for business casual. Basically, business casual is a shirt with a collar and/or a sweater, khakis or dress pants, and nice shoes for women. Women can also sometimes wear a moderate-length dress or skirt (read: knee-length or longer!). For men, business casual is a polo shirt or shirt with a collar and/or sweater, khakis or dress pants and dress shoes. No tie is required.

Where to shop for business casual clothing: Banana Republic (look in the "Work" sections), Eddie Bauer (look in the "business casual" section).

3. Campus Casual

Campus casual is what you probably won't be wearing to work. This is the technical term for what you're probably wearing every day - jeans, tee shirts, sandals, sneakers. You may be asked to wear campus casual to some very informal on-campus interviews and career days, and some casual networking events. In general, you probably want to stay away from this in the workplace and err towards more conservative stuff.

More Articles About Dressing Professionally

Now that you know the basics of what to wear in the corporate world, it's time to talk specifics. See the following articles for more details: 

Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2008; it was completely updated and revamped in 2017 with new photos and information.

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