Business professional vs. business casual attire

Some people may not spend too much time thinking about their clothes when they go to work or an interview – and certainly not on the differences between business professional vs. business casual attire. Maybe they feel that we live in such an “open-minded” age that anything goes. However, it still does matter how you dress in the workplace – even when that consists of a desk in your apartment and a laptop with a camera pointed at you.

Man in shirt, tie, boxer shorts and slippers sits with his feet up on a desk, speaking on a cell-phone.
WFH – anything goes? No, this guy goes.

It’s essential to dress appropriately, whether you’re attending an in-person interview, a Zoom interview or meeting, or working daily in an office. Not only will those you work with appreciate your attire, but it could give your career a boost, too. Research on how clothes affect behavior discovered that people dressed in more formal business attire had enhanced abstract thinking, savvier negotiation skills, and better focus — all the skills you want to have on the job.

While workplaces may have different policies regarding the dress code, going on an interview requires a more professional appearance. You don’t want to take the chance of losing a potential future job because you weren’t dressed appropriately. Once you get the job, you can adjust your attire accordingly, if need be.

There are two principal dress codes in the work world — professional attire and business casual attire. What do these two attires consist of? How do they differ, and when should you use one over the other? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you achieve the right look during your interview and in the workplace.

Dressing for an interview

Most people will agree that the job interview is where you want to put your best look forward. You want to dress to impress the company and match their style. That means be sure your attire fits the company culture. For example, if you’re applying for a professional position as a manager in a bank, it’s obvious you’ll want to dress in your best professional attire.

However, if you’re applying for a contractor’s job at a plumbing company where the employees wear casual uniforms, you would dress accordingly.

In other words, dress your best without overdoing it or being out of sync with the business’s environment. Business professional attire is appropriate for interviews and for jobs requiring a professional dress code.

Cartoon of a smartly-dressed businessperson, surrounded by various outfits, shoes, and carry cases.
Making the right impression counts – but one size won’t fit all in business.

What is business professional attire for men?

  • A conservative suit in a solid color
  • A long-sleeved shirt with a plain or unobtrusive tie
  • Dark socks with dress shoes
  • Neatly combed hairstyle
  • Trimmed nails
  • Little or no cologne or aftershave

What is business professional attire for women?

  • A conservative suit with a coordinated blouse in a solid color
  • Simple shoes — no extremely high heels or open-toe shoes
  • Skin-tone pantyhose
  • Limit jewelry so you don’t draw attention to yourself — a simple watch would be appropriate
  • Neat hair
  • Manicured nails
  • Little or no makeup and perfume

Business casual attire will be acceptable in most office settings unless the company has a professional dress code.

What Is business casual attire for men?

  • Pants that are either cotton, khaki, or gabardine fabric — no blue jeans
  • A long-sleeved cotton shirt that buttons down the front, or a knit polo shirt with a collar
  • Sweaters (any style)
  • Dress casual shoes, such as Oxfords, loafer, or leather slip-ons
  • Belt
  • Tie if desired

What Is business casual attire for women?

  • Any type of dress-casual top, such as a button-down blouse, polo shirt, twinset, cardigan, or sweater
  • Bottoms in a khaki, twill, cotton, or corduroy fabric
  • Dress-casual shoes or short boots
  • Solid, muted colors are usually preferred over loud or bright prints

Whether you must wear business professional or business casual, the tips that follow will help you look your best at work.

Cartoon image of a smartly-dressed businesswoman, surrounded by various outfit options.
Dress for success by fitting in AND standing out.

Tips to look your best at an interview

  • Make sure tops and bottoms are always wrinkle-free. Pay close attention to cotton clothing since it is more apt to wrinkle.
  • Stay away from clothing that is uncomfortable. It will be evident if you are constantly trying to adjust your clothes or an article of clothing makes you itch.
  • Choose modest prints, patterns, and colors over loud, boisterous ones.
  • Don’t wear graphic t-shirts with writing unless it is part of a company uniform or it’s standard practice.
  • Don’t wear faded or dingy white shirts. Replace them with new ones, or wear another neutral color instead.
  • Wear clothing that fits well. If something is too small, don’t risk getting a tear in it. Besides, ill-fitting clothes won’t look as neat as properly sized ones. On the other hand, you don’t want to wear baggy attire.

Tips for dressing at the office

Many large companies will have a dress policy, which takes some guesswork out of what to wear to the office. You can find this information in the Human Resources department or by talking to the human resources manager. However, you can tell a lot by looking at what other people are wearing for businesses that don’t have a policy and don’t have an official human resources department. This is one time when it’s a good idea to “fit in with the crowd.” You may not want to jump right into dressing like the most casually dressed person in your department when you first begin.

When you’re first starting at a company, it’s safer to err on the side of caution and dress more professionally than not, if unsure. Then, you can watch how the other employees dress and ease into changing your dress code accordingly.

If you see a wide range of dress standards at the office, leaving you with still more questions as to what’s appropriate — speak up. It never hurts to just ask the manager what they prefer for employee attire. They may give you latitude on how you dress. This could explain the variety of dress codes you see in the office. Some employees may be allowed to dress more casually, while others are required to wear professional business attire, depending on their role.