What is “appropriate” business attire?
That's sort of like asking, “How long is a piece of
string?” It's not a “one size fits all” proposition.
For depending on your line of work, your corporate
culture, and your audience, it can mean different things
to different people—even within the same organization.
Tricky? You bet.
Figure it out and combine it with strong skills and the
“sky's the limit” in your field. But fumble on the
dress code—even if you're technically competent—and your
climb will slow considerably, if not stall completely.
How you look will open (or close) the door to opportunity;
what you know will keep you in the room.
Here are the three basic things you need to consider
when figuring out what’s appropriate for you:
YOUR LINE OF WORK
*Traditional businesses like law, banking, finance,
accounting, high-level corporate, etc., require
traditional business attire: a conservative suit
in dark colors with classic lines. The message:
authoritative, conservative, and competent.
*People businesses like teaching, real estate, sales,
medicine, social work, etc., call for clothes that
both convey expertise but are non-threatening: two
piece dressing, good quality, no jacket. The message:
trustworthy, approachable, and knowledgeable.
*Artistic businesses like advertising, art, fashion,
writing, entertainment, decorating, etc., call for—or
dare I say it?—expect a more expressive mode of dress.
Three piece dressing, with a tie, scarf, or jewelry being
the third piece. The message: creative, unique, and
YOUR CORPORATE CULTURE
The next thing you have to look at is your corporate
While one company may have a very strict dress code,
another company in the same field may be much more
relaxed. If you adapt your wardrobe to “fit in” with
your company, you'll succeed much faster (in terms of
promotions and/or getting staff compliance) than if
you simply resign yourself to the notion that everyone
is either over- or underdressed, in your opinion, and
you'll march to your own drum, regardless of what they
Who is your audience? The people who most influence
your paycheck: your clients, potential clients,
management, colleagues, staff, students, etc. You're
1. Be relatable to them.
2. Fit their perceived image of someone in your role.
If you intimidate your clients, embarrass your
manager, or have people look you over from head to toe
in disbelief, you probably haven't dressed for your
audience. You also aren't going to get very far. You
need to dress how they'll feel most comfortable doing
business with you.
Imagine if you were selling a $300,000 harvester to a
farmer in rural Kansas. What would you be wearing to
make the sale? Jeans? A button down shirt? Work
Now imagine if you wear selling a $300,000 diamond
necklace to a socialite in Kansas City. What would be
appropriate? A suit? Polished shoes? A manicure?
Try switching the sales people. How would the
socialite respond to a jeweler in jeans and work
boots? She'd probably think him a crook and the
What about the farmer and the suit? He'd assume the
sales person had never done an honest day's work in
her life and that she didn't know the first thing
Same dollar figure, probably similar commissions.
Completely different audiences.
Okay, that's an extreme example, but it's told to
drive the point home: to get what YOU want, you have
to give people what THEY want. And what they want, at
least initially, is someone they can relate to or
someone who fits the perceived image of the role.
If you pass that test, then they'll go to the next
level of learning more about you. If you don't, the
ball stops there.
In a lot of ways, it's almost like dating: if someone
catches your eye, you might want to know more about
him/her; if not, you pass right over.
So the next time you're standing in your closet trying
to figure out what to wear, think about with whom
you're going to interact that day, and dress for your
most important client.