If you've been in the working world for a while, you likely feel confident that you know how to dress for business environments. And if you're a student on the verge of graduation and your first full-time office job, you have probably been given advice on how to prepare and what to wear from the experienced professionals in your life. But does that advice still hold up in today's working environment?
Changes in the world at large are reflected in changing standards in the workplace. Likewise, what counts as business attire is different from what was acceptable 15, 20, or 30 years ago. Even if you think you know how to dress for business, it's worth a refresher.
How to dress for business is changing in 2020
Office culture has been shifting over the past 10 to 15 years, and many offices have made the change from business formal to business casual dress codes. But these days even some famously formal businesses like Wall Street banks are relaxing their dress codes. In 2016, JP Morgan Chase made the shift to business casual (with the caveat that employees should still dress formally for client meetings).1 In 2019, Goldman Sachs fell in line with these changing dress standards as well.2
Why have office dress codes changed?
These changes didn't happen overnight, and they didn't happen on a whim. Instead, they reflect trends in the working world overall. Both JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs cited the changing atmosphere in workplaces toward a more casual environment, sometimes reflected in how their own clients dress.1,2 One possible factor is that newer recruits have led to a younger workforce with different standards. Millennials, the most recent generation of younger professionals, prefer working in a more informal environment.1 The rise of working remotely is another sign that office life has become less controlled and traditional.3 Because of these overall trends, an overly formal office environment can be seen by employees and outside contacts as being stuffy and outdated, rather than established, traditional, and respectable.1
So what are the new rules?
Relaxed dress codes don't mean that there are no longer any rules on how to dress for business. Some things will probably never be acceptable. For example, it's a good idea to avoid wearing T-shirts with controversial or political messages, just as you would avoid talking about these subjects at work. Never wear skimpy, low-cut, tight, or sheer clothing to the office.4 Also leave your "weekend wear" at home, such as sweatpants, yoga pants, flip flops, or anything that is stained or torn.1
When deciding what to wear to the office, consider the following
You shouldn't ever need to guess what's acceptable to wear to work. When in doubt, review your employee handbook, or ask HR or existing employees; your particular company may have different specifics than the general guidelines below. It's always best to know specifically how you are expected to dress. However, there are certain things to keep in mind:
- Your industry.4 Technology companies tend to be less formal in dress, while financial and legal organizations tend to be more formal.
- The cultural norms of your geographic location.4 The East Coast tends to be more formal and conservative by nature, while the West Coast tends to skew informal.
- Your role and experience.4 This doesn't mean dressing more formally just because you hold more responsibility. If anything, newer hires should be more concerned about making a good impression. If you've recently begun working at a company, try to dress a little more formally than your more established peers.
- Your daily responsibilities.4 Are you client-facing? If so, you might need to dress more formally, especially on days when you have important meetings. Even business casual environments might expect you to wear a full suit for these meetings.
What is and isn't acceptable at each level of formality?5,6
- Business Formal (aka Traditional). An exceptionally formal and impressive manner of dress is typically required, such as dark suits, suits with skirts, dress shirts, silk ties, cufflinks, pocket squares, dress shoes, or closed-toe heels.
- Business Professional. A more standard, formal style, previously common in many offices. Suits, ties, dress shoes or closed-toe heels may still be required, but it’s not as stringent as what's expected in a business formal environment.
- Business Casual. This is a more relaxed version of the business professional dress code, but it usually does not include jeans.1 Polo shirts, collared shirts, sweaters, dress pants or khakis, conservative dresses, and nice shoes or heels are acceptable. Ties are not necessary.
- Casual/Small Business Casual.7 You can get away with being much less formal in a casual work environment, but this isn't an invitation to dress sloppily. Wear clothing in good shape that fits you well. For many people, the most significant difference from business casual is that blue jeans are acceptable, as long as they are in good condition. Collarless shirts, casual button-downs, T-shirts, casual tops and skirts are also acceptable in a casual work environment, as long as they're workplace-appropriate, as well as jeans or khakis, and even open-toed shoes.
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1. Retrieved on November 3, 2019, from https://www.businessinsider.com/jp-morgans-relaxed-dress-code-2016-6?r=US&IR=T
2. Retrieved on November 3, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/mar/06/goldman-sachs-relaxes-dress-code-for-more-casual-environment
3. Retrieved on November 3, 2019, from https://www.fastcompany.com/90318974/the-rise-of-remote-working-will-continue
4. Retrieved on November 3, 2019, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/eustaciahuen/2019/05/09/businesscasual/#6dfea2332e81
5. Retrieved on November 3, 2019, from https://smallbusiness.chron.com/four-different-types-business-attire-23396.html
6. Retrieved on November 3, 2019, from https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/starting-new-job/guide-to-business-attire
7. Retrieved on November 3, 2019, from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/casual-dress-code-4051114