How to Dress for Success – A Guide to Business Attire (with examples)

Jobstreet content teamupdated on 19 July, 2023
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Whether you’re starting a new job or getting ready for an interview, how you present yourself through your outfit is key in nailing that first good impression. But when you’re battling nerves or running through your daily responsibilities in your head, putting together your best work outfit may be (understandably) the least of your priorities. Well, fret not, because we’ve compiled the ultimate guide to help you decode the various workplace dress codes.

What Is Business Attire

Before we get into explaining all the different types of corporate dress codes, let’s first understand what exactly business attire is. As the name suggests, business attire refers to clothes you wear that are befitting of your workplace’s culture.

Some companies might require their employees to don a suit every day, while others might favour a slightly more casual ensemble that’s still professional yet comfortable. Assess what your colleagues are wearing on your first day at work. This should give you an idea of how to dress for your brand-new working environment.

Types Of Business Attire

Formal Business Attire

Corporate professionals in formal business attire

This dress code type is perhaps the most traditional of the lot and is often only reserved for the strictest office environments. However, there are some instances where this attire can be viewed as a “black tie”, particularly for formal company events. A formal business outfit would typically consist of crisp and neatly-pressed outfits that never fail to make you sharp and put together.

For Her:

Formal Business Attire For Women

A matching blazer and skirt paired with pantyhose or tights is a common combination of business formal attire for women. Meanwhile, you can save your long evening dress for special occasions like award ceremonies or dinners. For shoes, make sure that they’re always close-toed, such as loafers, heeled pumps, or Oxfords. Accessories should be kept minimal with just a simple necklace and subtle earrings.

For Him:

Formal Business Attire For Men

Gentlemen, your business formal attire would involve choosing a tailored suit to go with your French cut style dress shirt and silk tie. Ideally, your arm sleeves should end slightly above the wrists and around where the wrist bone sits.

Your blazer outerwear should reveal an inch of your shirt cuff to showcase your cufflinks. As for accessories, opt for a simple watch and ensure that the colour of your belt is the same shade as your Oxfords or loafers. Silk or linen pocket squares will also add a nice touch to your ensemble.

Business Professional Attire

Corporate professionals in business professional attire

Business professional attire is similar to business formal attire and consists of the same wardrobe elements. The only difference is that where the business formal dress code can be an opportunity to whip out your fanciest outfits, the business professional look is applied for the day-to-day corporate work setting only.

For Her:

Business Professional Attire For Women

This smart corporate attire for ladies can include a streamlined, knee-length pencil skirt paired with a matching blazer over a white button-up shirt. If you’re not a huge fan of skirts, you could also consider a clean-cut suit as an alternative. Oxfords and loafers are the go-to choices for footwear along with classic heels, which should be no higher than three inches tall.

For Him:

Business Professional Attire For Men

White button-up shirts and a suit set are common wardrobe staples in every men’s business professional attire. Shoes are narrowed down to close-toed loafers and Oxfords and accessories include a black or brown leather belt and a plain or striped tie.

Business Casual Attire

Corporate professionals in business casual attire  

Finally, onto the last dress code type, the business casual ensemble is the most laid-back amongst all corporate attire and is the most commonly worn in many offices. While suits aren’t necessary for this professional dress, that doesn’t mean you get a free pass to your usual casual jeans and T-shirt combo.

For Her:

Business Casual Attire For Women

The female business casual attire is usually composed of pleated slacks or khakis to go with either a button-up shirt, a turtleneck top, or a professional blouse. Sleeveless tops or dresses (excluding spaghetti straps) are also generally accepted so long as they’re not too figure-hugging and have a thicker strap that conceals the underarms (or at least enough to prevent your bra from being exposed).

Flip-flops are still a no-go but some companies might allow open-toed footwear such as strappy heels, mules, or even sandals. However, it’s still recommended to stick to close-toed options for a cleaner look.

For Him:

Business Casual Attire For Men

Meanwhile, business casual attire for men can include a stripped-down version of a suit by ditching the blazer altogether. You can style your collared shirt with a pair of dress pants to keep it suave and classy.

Otherwise, you could also opt for the more relaxed option with a sweater or a short-sleeved polo shirt to go with your khakis for a casual yet preppy look. The dress code for business casual attire doesn’t require you to wear a tie, so just throw on your Oxford shoes to complete the look and you’re good to go!

Smart Casual Attire

Smart Casual Attire 

Smart casual attire is exactly what it sounds like—a blend between casual everyday wear with your most formal pieces. It’s a lot more relaxed compared to the business casual dress code, featuring brighter colours as opposed to the traditional neutral hues of the corporate world. Jeans are allowed, but they must not contain any ripped or distressed designs. Depending on how strict your company is, plain T-shirts and sneakers may be acceptable provided they look clean and streamlined.

For Her:

Smart Casual Attire For Women

Ladies, you can have fun donning your brightest suit set paired with a simple white T-shirt and white sneakers or loafers. Prefer skirts over pants? Simply swap out your pleated pants with a matching midi skirt for a more feminine take on the suit trend. Otherwise, you could also layer a sleek satin slip dress over a button-up shirt and finish up with some strappy or low-pointed heels to complete the look.

For Him:

Smart Casual Attire For Men

Gentlemen can also opt for the T-shirt and blazer suit route in their smart casual dressing. But if you want to go for an even cooler look, we suggest replacing your formal trousers with a pair of dark-wash jeans instead. Sick and tired of blazers? Then, style your pleated pants and button-up shirt with a clean-cut bomber jacket instead.

Casual Attire for the Workplace

Casual attire is basically your excuse to wear your most comfortable clothing and not be called into HR for it. But before you go wild, there are stillsomerules that come into play. Yes, that meansnoflip-flops and sleeveless tops. Everything else should be acceptable so long as they look neat and modest.

For Her:

You can either embrace a full-on casual look and style your crisp white T-shirt with your wide-leg jeans and sneakers, or dress it up a little with some smart-looking pants and a thin belt, and complete the look with strappy sandals. Alternatively, you can also go for a lovely, flowy midi or maxi dress if you prefer a softer style.

For Him:

For the lads, a plain sweatshirt to go with your jeans or pleated pants and sneakers is an outfit combination you can always rely on to look effortless and casual. Otherwise, you could go for the classic denim-on-denim, Canadian Tuxedo look, to make a bold fashion statement.

Plus Size Office Wear

The general requirements of the corporate dress code remain the same for plus-sized bodies. Dark or neutral colours, button-up shirts—you know the drill. However, the limited sizing options available in stores can make dressing for work even more difficult when you have a fuller body shape. That’s why we’ve put together a list of places to shop for so you can expand your office wardrobe:

  • Butik BOS
  • Dressing Paula
  • Mis Claire
  • Uniqlo
  • Zalora
  • Marks & Spencer

Besides the list above, there also are a few tips you’ll want to keep in mind when selecting your workwear pieces:

Structured Tailoring Is Key

A structured suit or blazer are a must-have for plus-sized office outfits. The padded shoulder pads with a cinched-in waist can cut a flattering figure that accentuates broad shoulders or defines curvier body shapes. Long lapels are great for creating a deep V shape that helps to give the illusion of a more elongated and slender appearance.

Opt For Shirts With Broad Collars

Narrow, smaller collars can tend to look disproportionate and might even make your features look wider than they actually are. Try looking for a shirt with a broader collar instead. This can help to balance out a broader neck or face.

Look For Clothing With Stretchy Materials

It’s no secret that office wear can sometimes be pretty restrictive and uncomfortable. Hence, you’ll want to opt for pieces that contain a combination of materials that have some stretch to them. Look for fabrics mixed with materials like lycra, elastane or spandex, as this will allow you to walk and manoeuvre about with ease.

Cultural Considerations in Business Attire

Multicultural workforce showcasing diverse business attire

When dealing with business internationally, it’s important to be mindful of respecting the other country’s culture. After all, the last thing you want is for a meeting or deal to go sour from your poor dress etiquette. That’s why taking the time to learn about the country of the people you’re meeting with goes a long way and demonstrates proactiveness on your part. Here are some things you should consider.

Religion/Faith:In some countries, places and contexts, one should be aware of religious sensitivities and dress accordingly. For example, in places where most of the population practises the Islamic faith, dressing modestly would be highly encouraged in the workplace.

Weather:The weather can be a major influence on the working attire for certain countries. For instance, in hot and humid southeast countries like Singapore, cotton-collared shirts can be worn without a blazer thrown over. Lest you want to end up sweating buckets, a full suit may not be necessary all the time.

Traditional Attire:Certain occasions may call for employees to wear their traditional attire. Thus, if you want to go the extra mile, be sure to know the ethnic garments and understand the context of the meeting. This type of attire may be appropriate for business dinners in conjunction with ethnic festivities. For example, a Baju Kurung or Baju Kebaya (for the ladies) and a Baju Melayu (for the gentlemen) would be appropriate for a Hari Raya celebration event.

Having said that, most countries do adopt Western standards for office wear. So, if you’re unable to get your hands on traditional attire in time, you can always rely on the business formal dress code for these international meetings.

Common Mistakes To Avoid & How To Dress For Success In Business

Now that you have a better understanding of all the different types of business dress codes, let’s dive deeper into the little details that could make or break your outfit.

Wearing The Wrong Fit

Choosing the right fit to match your height and body proportions are essential in smart business attire. Though the oversized trend is all the rage this season, some offices might not be as receptive to a baggier silhouette.

A well-tailored suit should lie flat, hanging nicely at the shoulders. The seam lining must match the bone length underneath and end just where the sleeve starts. Anything above or below this range may cause the fabric to wrinkle easily and instantly ruin your professional style.

Remember what we said about avoiding looser fits? Well, the opposite is also equally unfavourable. Your blazer jacket or dress shirt shouldn’t be too tight till the buttons are bursting at the seams. Similarly, your bottoms–be they a skirt or pants–should drape over smoothly without bunching up tightly at the back.

It’s also crucial to take into account the length of your trousers or skirt. The cuff of the pants should preferably stop at the middle of your shoes—this applies to all types of footwear. Meanwhile, the skirt hem and slit should end at the top of your knees, even when sitting or standing.

Not Paying Attention to Colour & Fabric

The colour scheme of these business corporate attires should stick to dark or neutral tones. Generally, most men wear grey, navy blue, and black for blazers and trousers, and white and light blue for tops.

The same rule applies to ladies as well, but you might be able to experiment with other hues for your tops like burgundy, light pink, and hunter green. Stay away from neon shades or anything that’s too overly vivid.

Your choice of fabric can have the power to make your day go about comfortably or have you readjust your clothes every few minutes. When looking at the material of your office wear, you’ll want to keep these few factors in mind: breathability, how wrinkle-resistant it is, and the level of sheerness or thickness.

Cotton fabrics offer a nice, lightweight feel to dress shirts that prevent your suit from feeling stuffy. Similarly, silk and rayon are also good options to consider for blouses thanks to their moisture-wicking and crease-proof properties.

Alternatively, thicker fabrics like wool for, both your tops and bottoms, might be better suited for colder weather to keep you warm and toasty during the frosty season.

Wearing Open-Toed or Scuffed-Up Shoes

Casual and worn footwear

We’ve already touched on the topic of footwear in our section on dress code types, specifically highlighting Oxford shoes, loafers, and heeled pumps. However, there are plenty of other variations you can consider to get the most out of your office wardrobe. Here are a few of them.

For men:

Casual and worn footwear for men
  • Derby shoes
  • Chelsea boots
  • Monk strap shoes

For women:

Casual and worn footwear for women
  • Ballet flats
  • Plain ankle boots
  • Pointed sling-back shoes

As a rule of thumb, your shoes should always conceal your toes. Footwear that is NOT encouraged in the workplace includes:

  • Slippers
  • Slides
  • Sandals

So, you’re now familiar with all the shoe ‘dos and ‘don’ts, let’s talk about upkeeping. Apart from looking for the right pair of shoes, you also shouldn’t forget about maintaining their smooth and clean condition. Worn-down footwear littered with scratches and dirt is never a good look in a professional setting. So be sure to give your shoes some tender-loving care with a good shine and polish whenever you can.

Over-accessorising Your Jewellery

Woman adorned with elegant jewelry

Wearing chunky jewellery or over-layering your necklaces and bracelets can make your office outfit look tacky. You should also steer clear of anything with too much bling or jingles noisily when you work. Instead, opt for smaller pieces with elegant designs, such as tiny studded earrings, a delicate ring, a chain necklace, or a single-stone pendant for a sophisticated touch to your look.

When in doubt, you can never go wrong with a watch. Avoid anything too flashy like a strikingly gold timepiece or a bulky sports watch. A minimalist style with a white, black, or navy blue dial and a black or brown leather strap lends a timeless appeal to any business corporate attire. Even more so when it’s paired with a matching leather briefcase, messenger bag, or backpack.

Other Common FAQs About Business Attire

  1. What should I wear for a job interview?
    Knowing what to wear for a job interview isn’t too different from the corporate dress codes you’ve learned thus far. Research what the company culture is like and figure out their policies on corporate dress code and then plan your outfit accordingly. So long as you wear pieces that reflect the company’s requirements, you should have no problems with your interview outfit!
  2. How important is grooming for business attire?
    Learning how to dress professionally shouldn’t just be limited to clothes alone. How you groom yourself plays a big part in setting up a well-respected image in the office. Some good habits to implement include:

    Nails:Keeping them short and clean. Even if your company allows nail polish, it’s better to stick to a clear gloss or a neutral shade that’s similar to the natural colour of your nails.

    Hair:Make sure that your locks are neatly combed through and free of tangles.

    Facial Hair:Preferably freshly shaven; otherwise, just like your hair, ensure that your moustache or beard is neat and clean.

    Fragrances:Nothing overpowering—nobody should have to smell you before they even see you.
  3. Is it necessary to wear a tie with a business suit?
    The answer varies from company to company, depending on how strict their dress code may be. For the most part, going tieless has become widely accepted in most places, especially in a business casual environment. However, this also means that more emphasis will be placed on your shirt’s collar so you’ll want to pay attention to the details around that. We’d suggest going over your collar with a steam iron to ensure that it stays sharp and crisp.
  4. Are there any specific guidelines for wearing makeup in a business setting?
    Essentially, most corporate settings require you to use makeup sparingly for a natural look. Highly pigmented or glittery eyeshadow shades may look stunning for a night out but are not necessarily viewed as polished or professional by your boss or colleagues. Instead, you can apply a subtle shimmer shade—this adds a hint of glow to your look but without overdoing it.

    ⁠It’s the same with lipstick and blush. Avoid punchy colours that draw too much attention to your makeup, and opt for a neutral shade that’s similar to your natural flush and lips.
  5. Can I wear sneakers with business casual attire?
    Yes, but you would have to choose the right sneakers with the right materials. Suede or leather sneakers in neutral colours are always a nice option to consider for their sleeker appearance.

    ⁠The type of sneakers is also another determining factor to think about when putting together your work outfit. Low-tops are a great choice if you’re looking for something that's versatile and easy to style with most of your wardrobe.

    ⁠Meanwhile, high-tops are perfect for those who want to make a fashion statement in their office attire. Can’t be bothered with laces? Then slip-on sneakers are the way to go for the ultimate blend of comfort and style.
  6. How do I dress appropriately for a business dinner?
    Just like with a job interview, you should always check if there's a dress code written down in the invitation for the business dinner. Understanding what the event is held for will also help you in deciding your outfit.

    Awards Ceremony Dinner:When it comes to award dinners, this is usually your chance to bring out A-game outfits. For the ladies, you can look graceful in a long, black evening dress paired with some sharp-toed heeled pumps and shimmery (yet tasteful) jewellery. For the gents, a black, silk tuxedo with a matching bow tie and dress shoes is a must for a dapper style.

    Business Casual Dinner:If the nature of the dinner is relatively laid-back, then you can probably stick to your usual workwear and elevate it with a few tweaks. This can be as simple as wearing new accessories that you don’t typically wear to work.
  7. Is it acceptable to wear clothing with visible branding or logos in a business setting?
    No, most corporate places view prints as gaudy and lacking in class. So unless it’s your company logo, it probably wouldn’t be advisable to wear any kind of logo or branding in your work outfit.
  8. What are some budget-friendly options for work wear?
    Before buying anything, try rummaging through your wardrobe first to see if you already own some of these office wardrobe staples. Once you’ve determined what you have, you can start intentionally looking for the pieces that you need. Here are some budget-friendly stores you can shop at to update your workwear collection without breaking the bank:
    • Uniqlo

    • Love, Bonito

    • Old Navy

    • H&M

    • Zalora

    • ASOS

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