October 3, 2022

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What Is The Dress Code Now?

Stephanie Coughlan, Founder of Image Intelligence

For many working professionals, the question that has long eluded so many of us is: How do you reconcile the difference between business casual and business formal when defining a work dress code? It’s something that changes and evolves globally, with different industries, cultures and global pandemics effects. So, what is a professional dress code, and how does it differ by business sector?

Dress codes vary by industry and by environment. Little is clear about what is considered acceptable professional attire for work. Let’s demystify the difference between business casual and business formal since every component of an outfit can tip the scale from a very formal (authoritative) look to a relaxed, creative one.

What are the three most important elements of any dress code?

1. Be as professional as you can be in whatever style you choose.

2. Be yourself: Dress in colors and clothes that show your personality and individualism.

3. Dress in a style that is befitting of your industry.

Below is a simple outline of the most basic information for dress codes by industry. This easy list organized by industry reflects what I would say are the most up-to-date dress codes for roles that are both in-office and client-facing.

Law, Banking, Finance, C-Suite

• The Message You Want To Send: authoritative, conservative, competent.

• Clothes: skirt suits; pants suits; tailored dresses; a mix of neutral and primary colors; high-quality fabrics; classic styling; conservative necklines and accessories.

Insurance, Real Estate, Pharma And Bio-Tech sales

• The Message You Want To Send: trustworthy, approachable, knowledgeable.

• Clothes: soft, tailored coordinates; sweater jackets; more color and prints; patterned fabrics.

Advertising, Fashion, Media, Entertainment

• The Message You Want To Send: creative, individual, contemporary.

• Clothes: more individualized style accepted; less structured garments; bolder colors and patterns; unique accessories.

Business Casual

What does this mean beyond being able to work in comfort? Here is a list of the most common wardrobe pieces for a business casual dress code, from most formal to least formal. Note that this dress code differs by industry. For example, what is considered business casual in fashion is not the same as business casual for law or biotech.

Most Formal: Smart Elegant

• Tailored/cardigan jacket and separates.

• Well-groomed.

• Thin soled leather shoes.

• Quality fabrics in casual styles.

• Neutral or muted colors.

Moderate Formal: Smart Relaxed

• A white T-shirt that is not wrinkled.

• Polo shirt.

• Sweater set or blazer.

• Collared shirt with sleeves.

• Turtleneck.

• Trousers, slacks and pants that have shape and structure (pressed with no holes).

• Groomed.

• Leather footwear.

• Colors appropriate to industry and skin tone.

Most Informal: Smart Sporty

• Pressed jeans without holes or rips.

• Athletic, clean footwear.

• Khaki pants or chinos.

• White T-shirt.

• Whimsical colors.

• Unmatched and unstructured garments.

Business Formal

Business formal is more of a uniform and is best described as a crisp, conservative look. This look is for professionals who work in a very client-facing business with a strict work environment where muted colors and suits are the norms for both men and women. Today, this is less common than the previously noted work styles. The following items are considered appropriate for formal business attire.

• Two-piece suit for men and women.

• Crisp white or pale blue shirt and tie.

• Stockings for women with muted colors.

• Leather closed-toe footwear.

• Conversative cut dress.

The Future For Professional Dress Codes: It’s Anybody’s Guess

What is more important than the actual dress code is how some of these more casual guidelines help drive higher performance in employees. If you think about it, a more relaxed dress code could help foster a more inclusive workplace and encourage people to show their individuality in their dressing. Encouraging people to dress in their individual style, rather than diminishing this practice, can give a person the chance to bring their whole self to work because they feel confident in their appearance. If people are encouraged to dress for who they are, rather than adopt a dress code that takes them out of their comfort zone, trust is built in the workplace. Dressing more casually in the workplace can be a way for employees of all levels to get along, and a relaxed dress code does not have to mean being “sloppy” or “scruffy.” Employers will be well served to expand their dress code guidelines beyond exclusively “casual” and “formal” labels, and they should consider setting guidelines for different work settings. Consider the examples outlined below for the work setting and the appropriate dress code.

• Zoom internal meetings: Have a great ring light, and casual attire is acceptable, such as smart sporty.

• Zoom client-facing meetings: Have a great ring light, and dress like you are in the office.

• In-office meetings without clients: Wear smart, relaxed attire.

• Outside client-facing or internal client-facing: Look more formal or smart elegant.

Employees should think about tailoring their look to the clients and occasion. If you have doubts about your style, then dress up.

And finally, after determining the appropriate palette for your workplace and role, choose colors within that palette that work well for your various professional needs. Creating a unified appearance from head to toe is the foundation for creating a personal brand.


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