Decoding The Office Dress Code: Everything You Need to Know (2024)

Studies suggest that observers form initial judgments based on clothing1https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/13612021311305128/full/html within seconds of meeting someone. The way we dress in the workplace directly impacts how others perceive us.

If you want to be more charismatic, more productive, or hone your executive presence, here is everything you need to know about expressing yourself professionally within the office dress code.

If you struggle with self-esteem, we’ll also show you how to use a psychological hack called enclothed cognition to make yourself feel more confident and professional in certain outfits.

What is An Office Dress Code?

An office dress code is a set of guidelines outlining the appropriate attire for employees in a professional workplace. It creates a consistent and professional appearance among employees and reflects the company’s values, industry standards, and the desired level of professionalism.

The most common workplace dress codes are:

  • Formal: This is the most sophisticated and polished dress code for special occasions or high-level corporate events. For men, it involves a black-tie tuxedo or a dark suit, a white dress shirt, a bowtie, and formal shoes. For women, it often means elegant gowns or formal dresses, heels, and tasteful accessories.
  • Business Professional: This dress code is common in traditional corporate settings and requires a more conservative and polished look. Men must wear tailored suits, dress shirts, ties, and formal shoes. Women can opt for tailored suits or dresses with modest necklines, closed-toe shoes, and minimal accessories.
  • Business Casual: Business casual strikes a balance between professionalism and comfort. Men can wear dress slacks, collared shirts (with or without a tie), blazers, loafers, or dress shoes. Women can choose from dress slacks or skirts, blouses, cardigans or blazers, and closed-toe heels or flats. It allows for more flexibility in colors and patterns.
  • Semi-Casual: This dress code is less formal than business casual and is often seen in creative or startup environments. Men might opt for chinos, polo shirts, and casual loafers. Women can wear casual dresses, skirts, or well-fitting jeans paired with blouses or sweaters. Footwear can include stylish sneakers or loafers.
  • Casual: The most relaxed dress codes, casual attire suits casual Fridays or laid-back workplaces. Men can wear jeans or khakis with polo shirts, casual button-down shirts, sneakers, or casual shoes. Women have the option of wearing jeans, casual dresses, skirts, and tops, along with comfortable shoes like flats or stylish sneakers.

We will elaborate on these office dress codes and provide examples below.

Adhering to your company’s dress code is key for meeting professional guidelines and altering how colleagues, clients, and superiors perceive you.

Why is Dressing Appropriately in the Workplace Important?

Imagine stepping into an elevator and sharing a brief ride with the CEO you’ve been yearning to impress. In that fleeting moment, what you wear can exert a silent influence that lasts longer than you might think. Studies have shown that first impressions are formed within milliseconds2https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01750.x. While your expertise and skills remain essential, your outward appearance sets the initial tone.

In the bestselling book Cues, Vanesa Van Edwards explains how charisma is a combination of warmth and competence:

  • Warmth: Can someone trust you? Are you kind and collaborative? Are you compassionate?
  • Competence: Can I rely on you? Are you powerful, intelligent, and capable?

Your selection of clothing can turn the dial on your warmth or competence so people view you as more charismatic in the workplace.

For example, research shows that when a doctor wears a white coat, patients perceive them as more competent3https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0738399112000900. Similarly, when a man wears a tailored suit, he is perceived as more confident1https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/13612021311305128/full/html, successful, and wealthy compared to a man in an off-the-shelf suit that is untailored.

An impeccably tailored suit or a tastefully chosen ensemble reflects personal style and a conscientious attitude toward your role. It showcases your dedication to professionalism, a quality that often transcends into your work ethic.

Conversely, an understated casual outfit could make you appear less intimidating to your team during a performance review or a staff retreat. From the boardroom to the break room, your attire can contribute to a positive atmosphere, encouraging colleagues to mirror your seriousness.

How you dress is key to appearing influential and important in the workplace. Influence isn’t something you’re born with; it’s a skill you acquire! We have found five key laws of influence to create a more memorable presence. This freebie will help you boost your charisma:

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What Are the Different Types of Office Dress Codes?

There is no one-size-fits-all template in the mosaic of office dress codes. Different companies and industries may have varying dress codes depending on their culture, work nature, and interactions with clients or customers.

If you need more clarification about your company’s dress code, ask your supervisor or reference your employee handbook. If you own a business and want to create an office dress code that fuels a thriving company culture, check out this guide on How to Create an Employee Handbook For Amazing Work Culture.

Here are the most common types of office dress codes in more detail:

Formal

A formal office dress code is most commonly associated with past business professionals. In the modern day, proper attire is generally reserved for executive-level meetings and special black-tie events. However, some workplaces, such as Wall Street or law offices, still hold formal office wear as the norm.

The color scheme is typically neutral, with only black, gray, or tan colors and few patterns. For men, formal office attire is straightforward: a tailored suit, dress shirt, tie, and closed-toe dress shoes.

Decoding The Office Dress Code: Everything You Need to Know (1)

For women, formal attire can include conservative dresses, skirt suits, or pantsuits, with understated accessories and close-toed heels. Panty-hose or tights are standard, and keeping the colors neutral is best.

This video provides some great examples for women who need to dress formally in the workplace:

Business Professional

Business professional is very similar to formal, except that more colors, shoes, and patterns are allowed.

A uniquely patterned tie or a short-sleeved collared shirt is acceptable for men. Shirts don’t need to be tucked in, and a blazer is not required. On the bottom, men might wear slacks, khakis, and chinos.

Here are a few outfit examples for men:

Decoding The Office Dress Code: Everything You Need to Know (2)
Decoding The Office Dress Code: Everything You Need to Know (3)

For women, this dress code opens the door to less-tailored dresses or trendy pant suits that are not typically included in traditional formal wear. You can experiment with different types of skirts, blouses, and conservative attire. Avoid anything shorter than the knee or shirts that expose a lot of cleavage.

The spectrum of options for women is even broader, but here you can see how formal differs from business professional. These outfits qualify as business professional but may be too unique for a traditional setting:

Decoding The Office Dress Code: Everything You Need to Know (4)
Decoding The Office Dress Code: Everything You Need to Know (5)

Business Casual

This dress code is less formal than business professional but maintains a polished appearance. It is increasingly common in the tech startup and fashion world. You can incorporate more patterns, colors, and looser silhouettes.

Business casual attire for men typically includes dress slacks, a button-down shirt (with or without a tie), leather dress shoes, and a blazer or sports coat. For women, business casual entails knee-length dresses, skirts with blouses, tailored slacks, closed-toe flats or low heels, and tasteful accessories.

Even in a business casual setting, you can still choose to dress it up. Social psychology proves that modern workers may still benefit from classic business suits. For example, in one study, a group in formal clothing performed better4https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1948550615579462 on organizational and creative tasks than those who wore casual dress.

Here is a great guide for men who want to aim at the classier side of business casual:

These examples of business casual demonstrate the looser guidelines compared to business formal:

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Decoding The Office Dress Code: Everything You Need to Know (7)

If you want to dress it up and express a more personal style, this guide is beneficial for putting together fashionable yet professional outfits:

Semi-Casual or Smart Casual

This more relaxed dress code allows for casual and semi-formal elements. Men might wear khakis, jeans, or chino shorts with a short-sleeved collared or polo shirt. Women can wear blouses, sleeveless tailored shirts, skirts, or jeans with comfortable but neat shoes or sandals.

Decoding The Office Dress Code: Everything You Need to Know (8)

The line between business casual and semi-casual is blurred, but the consensus is smart casual allows for jeans, shorts, and short-sleeved shirts as long as they are clean, unwrinkled, and not too revealing.

Here are some great smart casual outfit ideas for men:

This video includes unique smart casual outfit ideas for women:

Decoding The Office Dress Code: Everything You Need to Know (9)

Casual

This less formal dress code allows for a more relaxed style that flows with maximum personal expression. It is common in remote workplaces and some retail environments. Jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, and other casual clothing are acceptable, but there are often guidelines to ensure the attire remains appropriate and straightforward enough.

For example, avoid wearing inappropriate or controversial t-shirts. Keep the midriff covered for women, and don’t expose too much thigh.

Athleisure wear (casual athletic clothes) is allowed in some workplaces, but tight leggings and sports bras are best reserved for the gym. Just like with business casual, you can always dress up a simple dress code to appear more professional or competent.

Cultural considerations

A company’s culture and location directly impact the type of clothes employees are expected to wear. A more relaxed dress code might exist in creative industries or startups, allowing for personal expression and unique styles.

However, even in those environments, you still want to maintain professionalism. For example, a designer or marketing creative may wear a creative dress or blouse with exotic patterns and accessorize with bold jewelry, but the outfit could still be modest in the neckline and knee-length.

Decoding The Office Dress Code: Everything You Need to Know (10)

Regional and seasonal office dress codes

Regional norms and weather also play a significant role in office dress codes. For example, it is normal in Montana to wear a beanie and winter boots to the office during the cold months because it is so snowy and rugged. But in an urban startup environment like Boston, you’re expected to look less “outdoorsy” and more urban or polished.

It’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the cultural expectations of your workplace, ensuring you respect and honor those values. Consider local weather conditions when selecting your attire, particularly in regions with extreme temperatures. Dressing appropriately for the climate provides both comfort and professionalism.

Can I express my style while following the office dress code?

Expressing your style while adhering to the office dress code is possible and encouraged in many workplaces. Striking a balance between professionalism and self-expression allows you to stand out while fitting within the company culture.

Here are some tips to navigate personalizing your wardrobe while remaining within the office dress code:

  • Know the boundaries: Some workplaces have specific guidelines that outline what is acceptable and what is not. Knowing the boundaries will help you creatively work within them.
  • Embrace accessories: Accessories like jewelry, ties, scarves, and even socks can be a fun and subtle way to infuse your style. These small touches can add uniqueness to your outfit without violating dress code standards.
  • Add a pop of color: While maintaining a professional color palette, you can incorporate pops of color that resonate with your style. Add a colorful blouse, tie, or pocket square to liven up a neutral outfit.
  • Choose flattering silhouettes: Within the guidelines, choose clothing styles that suit your body and personal preferences. Tailored pieces can enhance your silhouette while reflecting your individuality.
  • Express through grooming: Grooming choices like hairstyles, facial hair, and makeup can also contribute to your style. These choices offer room for self-expression if they align with the company’s standards.
  • Casual Fridays and theme days: If your workplace has casual Fridays or theme days, use these opportunities to express your style more freely within the designated boundaries.
  • Footwear freedom: Shoes are another area where personal style can shine. Opt for comfortable yet stylish options that align with the dress code, and experiment with different styles.
  • Layer on the personality: Layering allows you to combine different pieces while adhering to the dress code. Blazers, cardigans, and vests can all be used strategically to showcase your style.
  • Confidence matters: The way you carry yourself can make a significant impact. Confidence in outfit choices will project authenticity and help you seamlessly blend your style with professional attire.

Remember, the key is to be respectful of your workplace’s expectations while finding ways to express yourself. By carefully selecting elements that reflect your individuality and creatively incorporating them into your wardrobe, you can present a polished and stylish image in harmony with your company’s guidelines.

How To Dress Professionally On a Budget

Dressing professionally doesn’t have to break the bank. We’ve all seen those $1,000 designer jeans tattered to shreds. Expensive does not always mean professional and competent business attire is not exclusive to a high price tag.

Here are a few tips to help you maintain a polished appearance on a budget:

  • Be versatile: Invest in versatile, well-fitting basics that can be mixed and matched. Solid, neutral colors are ideal for making new outfit combos regularly. For example, Steve Harvey is known for his five suits that can make 75 different outfits. This YouTuber put the theory to the test:

  • Find discounted staples: Take advantage of sales, second-hand stores, or online marketplaces for affordable wardrobe updates. Poshmark, Nordstrom Rack, and ThredUp are great brand-name discounted or gently used clothing options.
  • Accessorize strategically: Use affordable statement pieces to elevate your outfits. You don’t need a Rolex watch or pure gold jewelry to look fancy. A few subtle, classic pieces like a gold or silver necklace, stud earrings, a nice watch, or a couple of favorite ties elevate any outfit.
  • Iron and wash properly: Take care of your clothing to extend its lifespan, saving you money in the long run. Follow the care instructions and always wash delicates on a cold, gentle cycle. Keep your work clothes wrinkle-free by ironing or purchasing synthetic blend fabrics.

Dressing professionally is not about the price tag but presenting yourself neatly and together.

Simple Personal Hygiene

Research shows personal grooming cues like dirty fingernails or bad breath can cause unfavorable social impressions5https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2466/pms.1974.38.3c.1269. No matter how well-spoken or charismatic you are, personal hygiene is essential for displaying how you care for yourself and value your role in the workplace.

Let’s be honest: Disheveled hair or sweat stains can turn even the most excellent outfit into an unkempt mess. Remember the mayhem guy from those Allstate Insurance ads?

You don’t need a 3-hour Hollywood makeup and hair routine, but essential grooming is crucial for adhering to your office dress code and displaying an overall professional appearance. Here are a few essential practices to keep in mind:

  • Hair: Maintain well-groomed hair, including neat hairstyles like buns or ponytails and trimmed beards or facial hair for men. On a bad hair day, you can always opt for a headband, silk head scarf, dry shampoo, or a slick bun. Most dress codes do not allow hats, but you should check with your supervisor in a business-casual setting.
  • Teeth: Practice good oral hygiene and make regular dental check-ups a priority. Pocket breath spray or mints are great to have before meetings, where you will speak closely with someone.
  • Nails: Keep nails clean and trimmed, avoiding loud or excessively long nail art. Regardless of gender, dirty fingernails were one of the significant unfavorable cues in the study about personal grooming and first impressions.
  • Odor: Deodorant, perfume, or cologne help create a pleasant aroma but avoid overdoing it, or you might trigger someone’s allergies.
  • Details: Pay attention to small signals of cleanliness, such as ironed pants, wrinkle-free shirts, and polished shoes.

These practices demonstrate attention to detail and contribute to a professional and put-together appearance.

Changing Your Office Wardrobe With the Seasons

As the seasons change, so should your office wardrobe. To adapt to different seasons while maintaining professionalism, consider the following tips:

  • Layering: Use layers to stay comfortable in changing temperatures. Blazers, cardigans, or lightweight jackets are great options. Invest in one or two nice pea coat-style jackets in cold climates that can fit over anything.
Decoding The Office Dress Code: Everything You Need to Know (11)
  • Fabrics: Choose breathable fabrics like cotton, linen, or wool blends for summer and warmer materials like wool or cashmere for winter.
  • Colors: Opt for lighter shades in summer and darker tones in winter to match the season’s aesthetics.
  • Footwear: Switch sandals or open-toe shoes for closed-toe options during colder climates. For men, thicker socks and polished leather boots are great. For women, sleek boots and tights are a great option.

Accessorizing Your Professional Wardrobe

Briefcases and pagers are mostly past, but professional accessories are still an excellent way to add a personal touch to your workplace attire and showcase your style. It’s crucial to strike a balance between self-expression and professionalism. Consider the following guidelines:

  • Jewelry: Opt for understated and tasteful pieces that complement your outfit without distraction.
  • Bags: Choose a functional professional bag or laptop case that matches your appearance.
  • Fragrance: Use a light, subtle scent if desired, ensuring it is not overpowering and respects others’ sensitivities.

Remember, accessories should enhance your professional image rather than overshadow it.

Bonus Tips: Make a Dazzling Impact at Interviews and Meetings

You might have heard of “power poses,” but what about “power dressing?” Certain occasions require special attention to clothing choices to make the best possible impression. Here are a few tips for dressing professionally for important events:

  • Use enclothed cognition for a confidence boost: Enclothed cognition6https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103112000200 is a psychological phenomenon where the clothing a person wears can influence their confidence and even help them create an alter ego. It explains why people wearing lab coats perform better in intellectual tasks than those wearing regular clothes. Ask yourself, “What does the most successful/smart/confident version of myself dress like?” Consider a role model or someone you look up to. How do they dress? Can you emulate them while still expressing your style?
  • Dress it up for competence: Something about a tailored outfit and slick shoes sends the social cue that you are intelligent and capable. In a job interview or important client meeting, dressing more formally can improve your competence cues and make you appear more professional, serious, and intelligent.
  • Be more casual for warmth: People in casual clothing are viewed as friendlier7https://www.columbia.edu/~ms4992/Publications/2015_Slepian-Ferber-Gold-Rutchick_Clothing-Formality_SPPS.pdf and more laid-back than formal wear. You should tone down your outfits when you don’t want to appear intimidating. For example, if you have to give an annual review to an employee, fire someone, or share bad news with your team, it can help you dress more casually.

Action Step: Create an office-style vision board to inspire your next shopping spree. Divide it into three sections— formal, business casual, and seasonal. Search Pinterest, Instagram, or Google Images to find outfit inspiration from people you admire.

For example, if you’re in the tech space, you may opt for a classic Steve Jobs black tee and jeans. If you admire a female CEO like Sarah Kunst, peruse her style options. Copy and paste 10-20 photos into Canva or print them out and put them on paper. Use this as a guide next time you go shopping for work clothes.

Key Takeaways: Invest In Your Workplace Wardrobe to Make a Dazzling Impression

Whether navigating the world of corporate chic or embracing the creative flair of a startup, crafting your office attire could be the most important step for your first impression.

Remember to:

  • Ask about your office dress code: If it needs to be explicitly stated in your orientation or employee handbook, ask your supervisor for more details about the dress code.
  • Dress more formally for productivity: Science shows that more formal outfits encourage greater productivity.
  • Boost competence with formal wear: The nicer and more tailored your clothes, the more capable and intelligent you’ll appear.
  • Boost warmth with casual wear: Dress more casually in friendly situations like employee lunches, staff retreats, or delivery of bad news.
  • Follow the dress code from home: Even if you work remotely, wearing a nice outfit-appropriate top is helpful so you still look professional on Zoom calls.

Want more? Dive into the fascinating world of Fashion Psychology: What Your Choice of Clothes Say About You.

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