What Should I Wear? The Ultimate Guide to Workplace Dress Codes

July 27, 2021 The Washington Center

What Should I Wear? The Ultimate Guide to Workplace Dress Codes

Dressing for work can be tricky, whether you’re in the office or working remotely. Use this guide to get familiar with your office dress code and build a work-ready wardrobe.

Every office has different dress codes and culture, and even if you know which dress code your office uses, it can still be a challenge to figure out what to wear. 

The good news is, putting together a work wardrobe doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. We’ve compiled everything you need to know about dressing for work, along with some tips and tricks to feeling professional and comfortable at the office.

Do Your Research

Everyone wants to make a good first impression, and that all starts with how you present yourself on your first day. Knowing what to wear to a new office can be a challenge, but there are a few steps you can take to help.

Ask!
There’s nothing wrong with a quick email to your supervisor asking what the company’s dress code policy is and what people usually wear to work. Just asking for the dress code doesn’t always tell the whole story, so there’s nothing weird or inappropriate about also asking what people usually wear.

Check the Website
You can almost always find some clues on a company’s “about us” page or on their social media account. Look for pictures of the team around the office or at events to see what they’re wearing. 

Observe
During your interview (whether it’s virtual or in person) take some notes on what the people you’re interviewing with are wearing. 

Take Notes
Once you’re in the office (or on the video calls), look around and see what all your colleagues are wearing. Find the person (or people) you most want to emulate and take your outfit inspiration from them. As the old saying goes, dress for the job you want, not the job you have. 

Decode the Dress Codes 

If you ask someone what the dress code at their office is, they’ll generally give you one of four dress codes: business professional, business casual, smart casual or casual. 

There are some other in-between dress codes, but these four generally cover the spectrum of what your average American wears to work every day. We’ve broken down each one and listed everything you need to know in order to dress for success!

Business Professional

Keywords: Dressed up, traditional
Where you might find it: Government, finance, law

Business professional is characterized by its conservativeness.
Business professional is characterized by its conservativeness.

The Basics:
Business professional is the “old fashioned” way of dressing for work — the suit and tie look. This dress code is characterized by its conservativeness. Keep things simple and don’t overthink it.

The expectations of business professional are the most standardized — no matter where you go, the expectations are generally the same:

  • Charcoal or navy suits (pant suits or skirt suits) where the jacket matches the pants/skirt
  • Button down shirts (always tucked in for a clean look)
  • A necktie, bowtie or some other simple accessory
  • Dress shoes, black or brown (depending on your suit)

On a Budget:
This dress code is all about simplicity, so there’s no need to buy a huge amount of clothes. Get one or two suits and build around that. Get a few button-up shirts to match, pantyhose (if you’re wearing a skirt) and a pair of dress shoes that match your suits (when in doubt, use this visual guide). 

Taking care of business professional attire can be time-consuming and expensive. Suits (both jackets and pants/skirts) almost always need to be dry cleaned every four or five wears (or about once a week). While it can be a pricey recurring expense, it’s best to obey the “dry clean only” label. The quickest way to kill the suit you just bought is to toss it in your washing machine at home.

Mixing It Up: 
This will really come down to the kind of office environment you’re in — you should take the time to observe your colleagues before you start to mix things up. If there’s space for it, you can always inject color into your outfits with accessories, jewelry, pocket squares, watches or even fun socks!

Variant: Business Formal
This dress code isn’t very common and will likely not be a daily requirement, but it may be a recommendation for special occasions (like big events or important meetings). Business formal is the next step above business professional — just apply the same principles you’d apply to business professional but keep it as clean and simple as possible. This is the time to break out the nicest clothes you own. 

Business Casual

Keywords: Polished but comfortable
Where you might find it: Media and marketing firms, non-profits, education

Business casual is best kept simple but offers more freedom to mix things up.
Business casual is best kept simple but offers more freedom to mix things up.

The Basics:
One of the most common dress codes for American workers, this is the wardrobe you probably associate with all your favorite workplace comedies (“The Office,” “Parks and Recreation”). Like business professional, this dress code is best kept simple but offers more freedom to mix things up.

This one is also the hardest to put together since it varies so much between workplaces. Start simple and adjust as you feel out your new workspace.

  • Dress pants or skirts
  • Professional dresses
  • Professional shirts and sweaters
  • Nice shoes or loafers
  • Neckties usually optional

On a Budget:
Casual is in the name, so you probably don’t need to raid a department store to find good outfits to wear to work. You can get away with a few timeless pieces that all mix and match together nicely. Once again, read the “garment care” label carefully if you’re looking to avoid dry cleaning and save money.

Mixing It Up:
Business casual lends itself to weaving some self-expression into a professional wardrobe. Printed or patterned shirts, fun-colored pants, cool accessories, a sport coat or a blazer can all elevate your workwear. As always, be sure to feel things out before going too crazy!

Variant: Summer Business Casual
Lots of offices, especially those in warmer climates, will slightly alter their dress code for the summertime to help their staff stay cool. Summer dress code doesn’t necessarily mean you can break out the shorts, but you can likely fold in polos, sandals and cooler fabrics (like linen) into your wardrobe.

Smart Casual

Keywords: Individual, dressed down, neat
Where you might find it: Think tanks, tech companies, business start-ups

 

With smart casual, your best bet is just to take your current wardrobe and dress it up a little.
With smart casual, your best bet is just to take your current wardrobe and dress it up a little.

The Basics:
An increasingly popular way of dressing for work, smart casual is the compromise between business casual and completely casual. This one can be hard to figure out and might not even be the company’s “formal” dress code, just how most people dress. 

The key to this one is taking a “casual” look and dressing it up, so it looks more professional. 

  • Dark jeans or casual pants
  • Dresses and skirts
  • Untucked shirts and more casual sweaters
  •  Nice shoes

On a Budget:
For this one, your best bet is just to take your current wardrobe and dress it up a little. Pick out your cleanest, simplest clothes and add a few touches to elevate them. Pair your jeans with dress shoes, throw a sport coat over a regular button down, add some nicer shirts or pants to pair with your regular clothes.

Mixing It Up:
Smart casual is the least “defined” of the four basic dress codes. There aren’t any hard and fast rules, it’s more about the feeling of being “dressed up” for work without the need for specialty clothing. Don’t be afraid to overdress at the office occasionally, especially for big meetings or important events.

Variant: Commuter Casual
While most Americans drive themselves to work, more and more are getting to work on subways, buses and bicycles. If you’re going to be commuting this way, your work wardrobe will also need to be comfortable enough to withstand a walk, a crowded train or a bike ride. There are lots of companies making clothes that are both professional and sturdy for commuters. However, if you’re on a budget, there’s nothing wrong with changing your clothes once you get to the office. A popular hack is to wear sneakers while commuting and then changing into more office appropriate shoes after you arrive. 

Casual

Keywords: Comfortable, informal
Where you might find it: Small companies, the arts, tech companies

Casual means different things to different offices, so always be sure to ask if you’re not sure.
Casual means different things to different offices, so always be sure to ask if you’re not sure.

The Basics:
The minimal-to-no-dress-code dress code, casual is exactly what it sounds like: come as you are! The trick with this one is finding the line between casual and too casual. Casual means different things to different offices, so always be sure to ask if you’re not sure. Does casual mean baseball caps are allowed? Shorts? Flip flops? A full sweatsuit? 

A casual workplace makes it easy to standout if you want to impress. But really make sure you feel things out before you start overdressing — it may rub people the wrong way if you start showing up in a suit when everyone else is in shorts. 

  • Jeans or casual pants
  • Dresses and skirts
  • Comfortable shoes
  • T-shirts, hoodies and button-down shirts

On a Budget:
This is the ultimate budget wardrobe; you shouldn’t have to buy anything special or brand new to fit in at your new office. Just make sure all the clothes you have are well-fitting and clean.

Mixing It Up:
The most important part of this dress code is making sure you don’t go overboard when it comes to casual. If you’re going to mix things up, go for smart casual some days of the week or wear your favorite outfits to give you a confidence boost for the day.  

Variant: The Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of Facebook, famously wears the exact same outfit every day to work: a grey t-shirt and jeans. It seems cartoonish to have a closet full of the same outfit, but Zuckerberg claims having one less thing to worry about helps him focus on the work itself. You don’t have to wear the same thing every day, but don’t underestimate the value of “less is more.”

Video Call Dress Code

Video calls are becoming very common practice in business and figuring out what’s an appropriate look is often tricky. Is it appropriate to pair sweatpants with a suit jacket? How dressed up do you really have to be? Which video calls get the privilege of your “Zoom shirt” and which do not?
 

Video calls do tend to skew more casual than a traditional work environment.
Video calls do tend to skew more casual than a traditional work environment.

Here are some quick tips for dressing for a video call or a remote office:

Observation is Key
Even more than in a regular office environment, observing what your colleagues on video calls wear is crucial. Many offices have different sartorial rules for working from home as opposed to being in office. There’s also no harm in asking what the expectations are for video calls.

Dress Up as Opposed to Down
Video calls do tend to skew more casual than a traditional work environment, but you’re always better off overdoing it than under doing it. It’s a little awkward to be the only one in a button up on a video call of people in t-shirts, but it’s much worse to show up to a video call in an overly casual top when others are wearing suits.

“Zoom Pants” Are Up to You
There are lots of schools of thought on the idea of the “Zoom pants” (that is wearing a professional top with some sweatpants) but in the end the choice is yours. The truth is, on a video call, no one is going to see your lower half, so what you wear down there is up to you. Some people do find it helpful to their mood and their work ethic to be dressed from head to toe, but the choice is yours. 

In General, Keep It Simple
Neutral colors that are smart and well-fitting will always work on screen. Be wary that not every clothing item you own will look good on screen — patterns can be distracting, and some colors can reflect light differently, for example. 

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The best way to get familiar with office dress codes and office culture is to immerse yourself in a professional work environment. The Washington Center is here to help you get that real-world experience that will prepare you for your future career. Find a program that works for you. 
 

 

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The Washington Center

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