What to Wear to Work: Importance, Tips & Dress Codes

Be the office fashionista.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Illustration of five people interacting dressed in smart clothing, one holding a laptop

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Some people love clothes: from talking about fashion to going on shopping sprees, color-coordinating their wardrobes and picking out outfits days in advance, nothing gets in their way of looking perfectly on fleek at all times.

And then there are others who can’t get past the question of “What should I wear?” each morning before work.

If you belong to the latter category, or even somewhere in the middle, this article can help you understand a little bit better how you should be dressing in your profession, what’s considered appropriate and inappropriate in the workplace, and how to present yourself in a desirable light.

The importance of dressing appropriately for work

Sticking to your company’s dress code (or picking out appropriate outfits for yourself as a freelancer) can really have an impact on how other professionals and clients perceive you. In fact, appearances play a far greater role in career success than many of us realize.

In article for Forbes, executive recruiter Jack Kelly summarizes all the contexts in which looks can play a decisive role: “Attractive people are more likely to get hired, receive better evaluations and get paid more.”

To blame could be the halo effect, which is a cognitive bias affecting the way we interpret visual information about others. When someone looks professional, for example, we could take their neat clothes and quietly assertive demeanor to mean more things: intelligence, trustworthiness, integrity… Even when we have no proof for those assumptions.

How to dress correctly for work

Though each company is different and every role has its unique set of requirements, there are still some general tips you can follow to ensure that you’re dressing the part in your profession.

1. Read your employee handbook

The first place to start when you’re looking for clues as to your work outfits should be your employee handbook or contract. There, you should be able to find outlined what the company’s dress code policy is, which will point you in the right direction.

2. Ask your manager about the dress code

Dress code policies can sometimes be vague, however. Your employee handbook might read something like “All employees must dress professionally at all times” or “Inappropriate clothing will not be tolerated”. You might want to ask your boss what their definitions for “professional” and “inappropriate” are!

3. Observe your colleagues

When you’re first starting a job, it can be useful to keep an eye out for what other people on your floor are wearing. Bear in mind that outfits can vary a little depending on your department, so look at the people you’ll be working with most closely; someone in a client-facing role will likely dress differently to someone who hardly leaves their desk all day!

4. Choose comfortable outfits

Yes, you want to look good. But you also want to feel good, since you’ll be spending a minimum of eight hours wearing an outfit. Fabrics that are scratchy, tough, unbreathable or otherwise unsuitable for your working conditions will make it harder for you to work.

5. Choose styles that express you

Besides being comfortable, your outfits should allow your personality to shine through to an extent. Don’t feel like you have to wear heels, for example, just because most of your colleagues are doing it. Retaining some individuality can be beneficial to how you feel at work.

6. Pick clothes that fit well

In simple terms, what we mean here is that you’ll want your clothes to be neither too tight nor too loose. So, before throwing on that old shirt you unearthed recently, put it to the test: see what it looks like while you stand, sit, bend forward and lift your arms.

7. Don’t forget the hair

When you’re expending so much energy trying to get your clothes and shoes to portray you in a certain light, it can be easy to neglect your hair. But unless you keep it neat and presentable, it can end up making you look unprofessional, even if your outfit is on point.

8. Mind the fragrance

It doesn’t matter if the company’s dress code is casual or business formal; this rule applies regardless! Don’t overdo it with perfumes, colognes, body sprays and aftershaves. Too much of anything, and you’ll be distracting both your colleagues and customers.

9. Avoid overly flashy clothes and accessories

Much like with a perfume overload, you don’t want to have too much sparkle blinding those around you. If you want to add a bit of an eye-catching factor to your outfit, pick one or two items at most that make a statement, such as a wristwatch, necklace or shawl.

10. Speak up if you have concerns

If you feel that your employer’s dress code policy in any way compromises your safety at work, makes little to no accommodations for team members’ disabilities, religious beliefs or gender expressions, or seems to be imposed unequally between different members of the team, you have every right to speak up about it.

Workplace attire by dress code

You’ll typically know a company’s dress code from the moment you go in for an interview. But it’s best not to rely on your observational skills alone! Let’s talk about the three main dress codes in a little more detail.


Casual Workwear Ideas

A casual dress code is a relaxed approach to workplace outfits that allows employees to wear (within reason) whatever they feel comfortable in. And we do want to emphasize “within reason” here! “Casual” doesn’t mean you can turn up in an inflatable dinosaur costume or your swimming costume — you must still leave things to the imagination, let’s say, and preserve a professional image for yourself.

Casual attires are more informal than shirt-and-tie types of outfits, and usually include things like jeans, khakis, summer dresses, T-shirts, polo shirts and pullovers. They’re the sort of clothes you’d wear to visit your grandmother or a family friend: presentable yet relaxed.

Of course, your outfits should still be clean and free of creases for the office, and not ripped, covered in studs or boasting crude or otherwise distasteful graphics or typography.

In terms of shoes, flats including loafers, ballerinas, Chukka boots and even some types of sneakers should do the trick. If you’re going for sneakers, however, make sure they’re clean and in good condition; avoid the beat-down Nike SBs you wear at the gym.

Business casual

Business Casual Workwear Ideas

Business casual takes things up a notch compared to the “regular” casual dress code. Your employer expects you to put more thought into how you present yourself, while still maintaining a degree of informality.

Slacks, chinos, knee-length skirts, button-downs, blouses and blazers are all common choices for business casual dress codes. So are darker, fitted jeans that can easily be paired with a crisp shirt or a cardigan without appearing overly casual or relaxed.

Again, you’ll want to avoid fashion trends like ripped or low-rise jeans, fringe crop tops, blindingly sequined vests, and so on. Stick to colors like black, white, grey and earth tones (olive green, navy and burgundy) if you’re unsure.

Accessories like belts and minimal jewelry can really elevate business casual outfits, and so can footwear like Oxfords, wing tips, Chelsea boots and pumps. High-end leather sneakers are also not going to be frowned upon in most cases; you can opt in for them if you find smart shoes uncomfortable (or stylistically disagreeable!).

Business formal

Business Formal Workwear Ideas

A business formal dress code will require you to plan your outfits down to a T. Every day, you’re expected to look sharp and ready to take on just about any challenge. Though dressing up day in and day out can require a bit of a budget and a degree of effort and preparation, business professional outfits can fill you with confidence and determination to succeed, simultaneously boosting your credibility in others’ eyes.

Two-piece suits, jumpsuits, ties, pressed shirts, pencil skirts and dresses, and elegant blouses all belong to this dress code category. Your shoes — be they Oxfords, Derbies, brogues or closed-toe heels — must be spotless. The same goes for any accessories you’ll be sporting, such as wristwatches, bracelets or earrings; they too must be in great condition.

Your hair will likely require some increased attention. Though “crazy” hair colors, messy buns and somewhat unruly beards can be perfectly acceptable in workplaces with casual dress codes, if your employer has a business formal attire code in place, you’ll have to keep your hair brushed and neat.

What to wear when there’s no dress code

Some employers have no clearly defined dress code. In cases like this, the best way to gauge the situation is to observe what everyone else is doing and have a conversation with your manager if you’re still unsure of what look everyone is going for. (Hint: if it’s not actually stated, it’s probably fairly casual.)

Wearing whatever work-appropriate clothes you’re most comfortable in can be a good rule of thumb when no particular dress code is in place — again, within reason. This means avoiding the following mistakes:

  • Wearing ill-fitting, stained or damaged clothing
  • Wearing worn-out shoes
  • Showing up improperly groomed (this includes hair, nails and general hygiene)

How to dress for your shape

Bodies come in all shapes and sizes! While nobody expects you to become a fashion model or expert just to turn up to work every morning, identifying your body shape can help you pick out clothes that fit right, allowing you to feel as confident and comfortable as possible.

Body shapes are divided into these categories:

  • Rectangle
  • Round, oval or apple
  • Triangle
  • Inverted triangle or pear
  • Hourglass
  • Trapezoid

Depending on your figure, you might want to pick clothes that create an overall sense of balance by accentuating certain features and drawing less attention to others. For example, if you have a larger midsection and narrow shoulders, a tailored blazer can add definition and volume to your upper body while closing in on your waist, for a more flattering look.

FAQs about dress codes

Still scratching your head over dress codes? Here are the answers to some common questions!

Q: What if I’m transgender or non-binary?

Even if your employer doesn’t have a gender-neutral dress code policy, you still have the right to dress in the way that best aligns with and expresses your identity.

Though in an ideal world no one should have to, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with local, state and federal laws that are in place to protect LGBT+ community members against employment discrimination.

Q: What happens if I don’t stick to the dress code policy?

Generally speaking, and unless your offense is pretty extraordinary, failing to stick to your employer’s dress code policy is going to result in a warning. If your manager or HR thinks it necessary, you might even be sent home to correct your wrongdoing.

Be careful, though; repeated offenses can get you fired.

Q: What do I wear on my first day of work?

If you didn’t discuss the dress code in your interview, it’s best to take a more conservative approach on your first day. Better overdressed than underdressed!

If you were given a contract already, however, or an employee’s handbook, you’ll want to carefully look through it for clues.

Key takeaways

Dressing for work can be a pleasant challenge for some. For others, picking what to wear to work every day can seem complicated!

Since having you here means you likely belong to the latter group, let’s recap the main points we talked about in this article:

  • The three main types of office dress codes are casual, business casual and business formal.
  • Breaching your employer’s dress code policy can get you a warning, sent home or even fired.
  • Picking clothes you feel comfortable and confident in can positively impact your productivity and mood.
  • Neutral colors, like white shirts and navy suits, are the most popular ones in the formal workwear category.
  • Though gender-neutral dress code policies can make for a more inclusive work environment, not all employers have adopted them.

We hope you’ll have found some answers and inspiration in our descriptions for the main dress code types and style guides! Do you have any tips or advice to add? Leave us a comment and let us know.

Originally published on August 1, 2019.