As with many things, this is cultural and varies country to country. This post discusses the typical US workplace, but some of the tips will be applicable no matter where you are. If you travel abroad for work, your employer will be able to guide you on cultural expectations for your destination.
Workplace dress codes can be complicated. Expectations vary by industry, workplace location, and in some cases, by specifically what you will be doing. I’ll also talk about dress codes specific to women and some cases where a stated dress code should raise a red flag about company culture.
One thing that all workplaces have in common: Good personal hygiene and grooming is expected of absolutely everyone without exception. Some jobs involve getting dirty and/or sweaty, but everyone should always show up to work clean and well-groomed. Clothing should fit correctly and not have holes, tears, or stains.
Dress Code Descriptions
Throughout this post, I’ll talk about four types of dress codes.
For all: Jeans, T-shirts, shorts, sneakers, sheer clothing, and flip-flops or other beachwear are never acceptable for anyone under this dress code.
Men: For you, business professional means a suit and tie. You’ll be expected to wear a suit or sport jacket and tie, a long-sleeved dress shirt, and brown or black dress shoes with trouser socks daily. Ties and shirts can be colored but should not be excessively loud, and you should wear an undershirt beneath that dress shirt. Shirts should be tucked in with a belt that matches your shoes. Facial hair should be shaved or neatly groomed, and visible tattoos and piercings are not usually acceptable. Cuff links are a nice touch but aren’t required.
A man who wears business professional daily should find a good tailor to ensure that his suits fit correctly.
Women: Business professional for women means a business suit, either a pantsuit or a skirt suit, or a professional dress. Pantyhose is expected at this level, as is appropriate jewelry. If your shirt does not have a collar, a necklace conveys authority, so I recommend one of the two. Your skirt should not be more than three fingers above the knee, your cleavage should not be visible, and you should wear closed-toe dress shoes. Piercings that aren’t in your ears and all tattoos should not be visible. (Ear piercings are acceptable for women, but should be tasteful.) Professional makeup is suggested and generally expected.
Professional makeup is also referred to as daytime makeup. Makeup of this kind should accentuate and even out the face, not draw attention to itself. Avoid loud or dramatic color, glitter and sparkles, and dramatic effects such as smoky eyes that are more appropriate for evening wear.
Business casual varies a lot from office to office, but these guidelines should be acceptable in most places.
For all: Shoulders and chest should be fully covered, and T-shirts, shorts, sneakers, and flip-flops or other beachwear are not acceptable. Jeans are seldom acceptable, but some offices have a “casual Friday” dress code that allows them on Fridays only.
Men: A collared shirt and slacks or khakis with loafers are the rule of the day. Ties are not generally expected, and polo shirts are acceptable. Dress shirts may be short or long sleeve, and loafers are the norm. Shirts should be tucked in with a belt. Many men in this environment who occasionally meet with clients keep a sport jacket and/or a tie in their office for an instant wardrobe upgrade if needed.
Women: A collared shirt or dress blouse and slacks or a skirt is the rule. Shoes may be open-toed flats or heels, and pantyhose is not usually expected. Dresses should be no more than three fingers above the knee. Sheer clothing should have a slip or a camisole beneath it, and your bra should not be visible. Shrugs and jackets to cover sleeveless blouses are commonplace in this dress code.
These offices say business casual, but business comfortable is my term for an office that is business casual with the emphasis on casual. The major difference between this dress code and business casual is that nice jeans and often sneakers are acceptable.
Caution: Never assume this dress code. Go for this only if it’s what the people around you are wearing.
Men: A collared shirt and nice jeans with or a belt, and loafers or sneakers.
Women: A polo shirt or blouse and nice jeans with sneakers or flats. Shoulders should be covered, but a sleeveless shirt can be covered with a shrug. Heels aren’t typical in this dress code but are acceptable.
Uniformed / Special Case
This applies to environments such as medical offices, retail, amusement parks, and other places where either for safety / hygiene reasons or appearance reasons, your employer will explicitly specify and will sometimes provide what you will wear. Follow your employer’s guidelines.
In these cases, all genders and gender identities should be clean and well-groomed no matter what. Piercings and tattoos may or may not be acceptable; your employer will specify.
💡If your employer provides the clothing they want you to wear, you can often keep it from becoming stinky and having to do laundry every other day by wearing a plain shirt beneath it. Your employer may tell you what colors are acceptable beneath it; if not, default to the same color as the shirt provided.
Industry and Dress Codes
The biggest drivers of daily workplace dress codes are your employer’s industry, location, and your employer’s company culture. Expect and default to the following dress codes from these industries.
Business Professional: Law, finance, politics, sales, hospitality*, broadcast media
Business Casual: Government, most industries not otherwise mentioned
Business Comfortable: STEM, healthcare
*Except uniformed employees. Hospitality is usually either uniformed or business professional depending on role.
Information Technology (IT)
IT counts as STEM, but IT is a support function for nearly every business in existence today, so IT workers will often follow the dress code for their employer’s industry. For example, IT professionals employed by a law firm will be expected to wear at least business casual and possibly business professional. If not guided otherwise, they’ll tend to default to STEM.
IT attire is often driven by practical considerations. Because of the occasional need to crawl under desks and root around in closets and basements and under floors, the majority of women eschew skirts and open-toed shoes in favor of slacks and closed-toe shoes.
Dress code for media from day to day depends on what one is doing. If you’re on camera, business professional is usually absolutely required, and both men and women will wear makeup. The good news is that you’re unlikely to have to do it yourself; most news media outlets retain makeup professionals whose job is to fine-tune your on-camera appearance.
If you’re off-camera, it varies. Radio DJ’s might well wear jeans and a T-shirt. If you’re in media, default to business professional and follow the lead of those around you.
Remember: these are default guidelines only. If your company does something different, follow their rules.
What city you work in can influence the details of how you dress. Fashion-forward locations such as London, Paris, or New York may accept more edgy attire than a conservative city such as St. Louis, Houston, or, interestingly, Washington DC. To determine the norms for your city, walk down a street downtown at lunchtime on a weekday, and stop in an eatery downtown. Look around you — what are the majority of people wearing?
If you don’t work in an office, or you spend time in environments that are not an office, the above may not apply to you. Construction yards, kitchens, nurseries, operating theaters, and factories all have their own needs and their own rules. Chances are that if you are trained in these fields, you already know what the requirements and restrictions for attire are. If not, ask your employer.
Put simply: if you are interviewing for a non-office job in an industry that is not notated as being business professional, business casual may be acceptable. Otherwise, business professional attire is always de rigueur for an interview, with some further restrictions.
For interviews, skip the loud colors and lean conservative. Choose a suit that is navy blue, black, or gray; brown has also become acceptable in recent years. For men, shirt should be white, and the color accent can be in the tie. Women can go with a colored shirt or blouse. Color choice depends on what you look good in and what you want to convey.
- Black: Authority
- Brown: Practicality, “down to earth”
- Blue: Honesty and work ethic
- Gray: Sophistication
- Red: Passion (use this color sparingly)
Company Culture and Dress Codes
Individual company dress codes can say something about its culture. The more formal and restrictive its dress code, the less tolerant of personal expression it’s likely to be, and the stricter it’s likely to be in other areas as well. A company with a formal dress code is concerned about its corporate image. Conversely, a company with a relaxed dress code is relaxed in other areas as well and is more likely to have a “whatever works” attitude. Companies like this can be disorganized and organic in nature.
Caution: Be wary of a company that wants you to dress like an executive, but wants to pay you like a scrub. Maintaining a professional wardrobe isn’t cheap, and a company that isn’t willing to pay you commensurately with the expected dress code probably doesn’t care about you or your needs.
For the ladies: There are still some companies that expect and demand that women wear skirts and heels daily, despite an increasing body of medical evidence suggesting that daily wearing of high heels does permanent damage to the feet. This requirement indicates a company culture that has strict expectations for gender roles and should raise a red flag for women whose profession falls outside traditional gender roles or who have medical issues that preclude the wearing of high heels.
A Final Word
Remember this: every company is a little different and rolls their own. What I have given you is a set of safe defaults that will be acceptable in nearly every situation. As you gain time in a new job, you’ll learn more about its culture and what and will not be accepted.
You can quickly determine a company’s dress code during your interview. Look around you at what the people passing by, and most especially your interview team, are wearing. That’s the dress code that will be expected of you should you take the job.