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Dress to impress! The difference between business casual vs. business professional

Dress to impress! The difference between business casual vs. business professional

  • Business professional vs. business casual dress codes
  • What attire is business professional?
  • What is business casual dress code?
  • Key takeaways  

The workplace is continually evolving and it can be hard to figure out what exactly to wear everyday. If you're feeling confused, this article explains the difference between business casual vs. business professional and helps you dress to impress!

While dress code may seem like a trivial matter, it’s actually pretty important. First impressions can be greatly influenced by the message your attire conveys. Essentially, clothing shapes people’s perception of others, including factors such as gender, age, status, and occupation. 

When you have a clear understanding of the company dress code, you’ll feel part of the team, impress clients, and positively represent your organization. So, how do you dress to impress

In this article, we’ll explore:

  • Business professional vs. business casual

  • What is business professional dress code?

  • What is business casual dress code?   

Statistical Insight

Clothes have a strong influence over the way other people perceive you, but research from California State University, Northridge, and Columbia University also found that clothes can influence the way you think. Across five experiments the researchers found that “dressing to impress” enhanced abstract thinking among participants.

Business professional vs. business casual dress codes

Dress codes in the workplace tend to fall into three levels: casual (no dress code), business casual, and business professional. The most formal of the three is business professional (a conservative suit, for example). Business casual sits right in the middle. So, more formal than wearing a t-shirt but more casual than wearing a suit.

Understanding your company dress code is important as it sets the tone. If you’re employed in client-facing roles, you’ll typically wear more formal attire a.k.a. business professional. Other office settings find that a more laid-back dress code (business casual) boosts employee engagement and productivity as the team feels more comfortable. Some workplaces may blend all three dress codes: business casual most days, business professional for meetings, and casual Friday (relaxed clothing).

Expert Tip

If you’re starting a new job and observed the dress code during your interview, double check the dress code before your first day. Perhaps your interview was on a casual Friday, and the normal dress code is business professional. 

What attire is business professional?

Business professional attire tends to be the norm if you work in a more traditional industry, such as law, finance, or government-based roles.. Think conservative clothing, solid neutral colors, coordinated accessories, and smart shoes. 

Here’s some business professional dress code examples:

  • Pant or skirt suit. Suits are a great option for business professional clothing. Stick to black, navy, or gray colors, make sure it’s a good fit, and if wearing a skirt, then the length should be just below the knee. A smart dress and blazer is another option.

  • Tops. Pair your suit with a neat, button-up/button-down shirt or blouse. Avoid any loud colors and designs that might give your co-workers a migraine! Stick to conservative tones (white, cream, or burgundy) while ensuring patterns selected also compliment your suit. 

  • Shoes. Research has shown that people do judge someone according to their  shoes! Shoes need to be closed-toe for the business professional look. Dress shoes (oxfords or brogues, for example) are ideal in black, brown, burgundy, or tan. If you prefer pumps, opt for comfortable leather (or similar material) shoes with heels (two to four inches) or flats, in black, dark-brown, or nude. 

  • Accessories. Choose accessories that are classic and match your overall attire. Ties should be a solid color or with a conservative pattern. Jewelry should be minimal, and you can add a belt, cufflinks, and work bag.

  • Be clear on your workplace’s expectations in terms of dress code via the employee handbook or HR.
  • Dress in layers to deal with warmer and cooler weather so you’re more comfortable at work.
  • Wear revealing, overly bold, or ripped clothing as this just looks unprofessional and can be distracting.
  • Wear flip flops. Apart from the annoying flopping sound, they also don’t look professional.

What is business casual dress code?

Business casual can sound like an oxymoron, so it can be a little confusing as to what exactly falls into this category. The good news is that between business casual vs. business professional, this dress code allows you more options and creativity! 

Here’s some business casual dress code examples:

  • Slacks and pants. Smart slacks and pants are both business casual and comfortable. Veer towards basic or darker colors, rather than colors like bright orange or hot pink as they will be way too bright. 

  • Dresses and skirts. Shift dresses and skirts to knee-length are great business casual options. Just avoid any glossy or wrinkly materials, denim, or bare shoulders so you don’t look too casual.  

  • Jackets. Pairing a blazer or jacket with a polo-shirt and smart pants or a shift dress with a jacket are great ways to nail business casual. Here you can go a bit more colorful. Perhaps a black shift dress with a bright-colored jacket or mid colored pants, dark jacket, and light colored top. 

  • Tops. Formal or casual blouses, shirts, sweaters, polo shirts, and turtlenecks can be paired with more classic formal options for the rest of your attire. Keep your clothing choices aligned to the office environment, so no oversized sweaters or clothing with slogans.

  • Shoes. Stick to closed-toe shoes for business casual, such as pumps, flats, boots, or loafers. Avoid flip flops, slippers, running shoes, or overly flamboyant shoes.

  • Accessories. Sophisticated scarves, statement belts, classic watches, or a smart tote can add a finishing touch to your business casual outfit. Jewelry (subtle) is another accessory that can accentuate your look.

Now you’ve got the dress code pinned down, you’re ready to level up in your career. Check out Career.io’s Pathway to Promotion with expert insights, video introductions, and practical resources to get you where you want to be in your career.

Key takeaways  

  1. Understanding company dress code, whether casual, business casual, or business professional, will help you feel part of the team, impress clients, and positively represent your organization.

  2. Business professional is the most formal of attire, which tends to be the norm in more traditional industries or for networking, interviews, and client-facing activities.

  3. Business casual sits between casual and business professional, so more relaxed than a formal suit, but not as casual as a hoodie.

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