What to Wear: "Professional" vs. "Business Casual"

With a new job or internship on the horizon (or even as you attend career fairs and networking events) it's important to put some thought into what you wear. Some may already have a closet of work-appropriate garments, ready for day-to-day use. Others may need to start from scratch, or close to it. Here’s how to get started with office-ready essentials.

Understanding Professional Standards

From office to office, style expectations vary, although certain industries always demand a professional look. Think finance or law, for example, where suits and ties are a day-in, day-out requirement. In some ways, this makes things simpler. Professional attire almost always means:

  • Suits (with tie) for men, paired with a solid-colored dress shirt
  • Suits, pants suits or dresses with jacket for women
  • Neutral colors and conservative footwear for all
  • Clean grooming, ironed clothes and attention paid to the details

Mastering Business Casual

On the other side of the spectrum is business casual. First things first, this is not casual in the way you may expect — even if we sometimes wish it was. In other words, jeans and sneakers do not generally apply. The key is to maintain a professional presence, even if you’re not in a suit or tie. Remember, you represent your organization, so you want to make an effort, no matter what day of the week.

  • From day one: Dress more formally, and observe your peers, which can help you decode your office. That said, even if dress is more casual, it may show ambition to dress it up a bit.
  • For her: From tailored pants to dresses (not more than an inch or two above the knee), women have options. Aim to keep footwear relatively conservative.
  • For him: Dress pants, a collared shirt and a belt are standard. Blazers, tailored sweaters and leather shoes work as well.
  • For everyone: Avoid jeans until you’re certain when they are acceptable…which can range from Fridays-only to never. This is not an area in which to be a trailblazer. Trendier clothes may be ok, within reason, but take cues from others.

Over the years, “business casual” has shifted in a more casual direction, which can make things a bit confusing, especially when you’re first starting out. By keeping an eye on your peers, however, you’ll get the swing of it in no time.