Business Professional Attire vs. Business Casual Attire

Business team in office
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Dressing for job interviews used to be straightforward: regardless of industry, job title, or gender, the appropriate outfit was some variation on a suit. It's the same scenario with dressing for work. Employers in many industries now have a more casual dress code than they did in the past.

For folks in creative and/or casual industries, job interviews might be the only time they wore that suit, but wear it they did – or else. It was understood that hiring managers wouldn’t look kindly on candidates who showed up to interview in anything but a suit.

Nowadays, standards have changed. This makes dressing appropriately for a job interview far more complicated. How do you know when to wear a suit? And, how do you determine the appropriate outfit when standard business attire or a suit isn’t required?

Dress Appropriately for Your Workplace

First things first: let the corporate culture of the company be your guide. This means that if people generally dress up to go to work, so should you. When interviewing for a professional position at a traditional company, it's always important to dress professionally and to dress in your best business attire, regardless of the organization's dress code.

On the other hand, if you’re interviewing at a tech startup or a media company or similar, and most people wear jeans and t-shirts to work, you can be a bit more relaxed and opt for business casual attire.

Note that we did not say, “Wear a t-shirt.” Regardless of the informality of the company, you want to dress to impress when you’re going to a job interview. That may mean dressing a bit nicer than your prospective coworkers – or even than the interviewer. (More on potential sartorial pitfalls in a moment.) The goal is to convey professionalism and respect and to dress in a way that allows your ideas and experience to shine.

Dressing to Impress After You’ve Been Hired

After you have accepted the job offer, you may be working in an environment where business casual or just plain casual is appropriate workplace attire. In that case, it’s important to avoid overdressing. It’s hard to gel with your new team when you’re wearing a three-piece suit and they’re in t-shirts and flip-flops.

If you're not sure what you should wear, ask. There is no better way to make a bad impression than to show up for your first day of work standing out like a sore thumb because you're not dressed correctly.

Business Professional Attire vs. Business Casual Attire

© The Balance 2018

Even if you were paying attention to people's outfits on your interview day, it's still a good idea to ask about what's typical. Who knows — maybe you interviewed on a dress-down work day. It's best not to make any assumptions. Instead, check in with HR or your new manager. 

Another reason to ask is because business casual doesn't have a strict definition. The phrase means different things to different employers. In some cases, business casual attire means pressed khakis and a button-down long-sleeved shirt. To other companies, it might mean dress jeans and a polo shirt. 

Take a look at the following guidelines for appropriate attire for interviewing and for dressing in business casual.

Business Attire for Interviews for Women

  • Solid color, conservative suit with a coordinated blouse, moderate shoes, tan or light pantyhose, limited jewelry
  • Neat, professional hairstyle, manicured nails, light makeup, little or no perfume

Business Attire for Interviews for Men

  • Solid color, conservative suit, long sleeve shirt, conservative tie, dark socks, professional shoes
  • Neat hairstyle, trimmed nails, little or no cologne or aftershave

Business Casual Attire for Women

  • Khaki, corduroy, twill or cotton pants or skirts, neatly pressed
  • Sweaters, twinsets, cardigans, polo/knit shirts
  • Solid colors work better than bright patterns

Business Casual Attire for Men

  • Khaki, gabardine or cotton pants, neatly pressed
  • Cotton long-sleeved button-down shirts, pressed, polo shirts or knit shirts with a collar
  • Sweaters
  • Leather shoes and belt
  • Tie optional

What Not to Wear

Regardless of gender, when the dress code is business casual it's not appropriate to wear your favorite old t-shirt, ripped jeans, and grubby sneakers. Keep in mind the "business" part of business casual, and leave your old comfortable clothes at home.

That said, when possible you want to avoid choosing an outfit that makes you uncomfortable. That’s tough if the dress code is business attire and you’re used to going to work dressed in athleisure. But remember that you’re trying to create a good first impression: looking like you’re wearing your older brother’s suit won’t help.

Does that mean skipping the suit altogether, even for employers with a more formal dress code? Not at all. But it does mean making sure that your interview attire fits and spending some time getting used to wearing it before the big day. If possible, spend a few hours walking, sitting, standing, etc., in the clothes you’ll wear to the interview. Just make sure to do so with enough time to get your outfit dry-cleaned, just in case.

Opt for Quality Over Quantity

Whether you're wearing business or business casual attire, remember that quality is more meaningful than quantity.

One classic bracelet or ring, for example, will impress your interviewer or employer more than an armful of bangles or rings on every finger. In the same vein, a good quality leather portfolio will impress more than a loud, colorful bag. Choose your interview accessories carefully.

Regardless of whether you are dressing for a job interview or to go to work, remember that appearances do matter. Potential (and current) employers may think less of you if you don't dress appropriately for the company. It's always important to make the best impression, whether looking for work or hoping for a promotion.