Decoding the Dress Code

May 2, 2020

In 3 years of professional, corporate work, I have been part of 6 different offices (shout out to that consulting life), and each one has had a bit of a different vibe. As a result, the dress code for each has been a bit different. Here I’ll break down the Dress Codes that I am familiar with and what they mean. If you’re ever unsure, ask your contact first and then opt for at least one level higher/more professional because it’s better to be over-dressed than under-dressed.

Business Formal / Business Professional

Your best suit, your power shoes. This is the ensemble you need to take over the world.

In my experience, when you’re this dressed up, there’s something important going on, and it is often associated with first impressions. Now, if this is your every day dress code, some of this might not apply, but for the rest of us, Business Professional is not the time to take any risks. You could be going in for an interview or sales pitch; this involves navigating unfamiliar terrain (literally, you won’t know ahead of time how many sets of stairs separate you from your destination or the temperature in the room where you’ll spend your next 2 hours) as well as the need to focus intently on the objective at hand. The last thing you need is to be distracted by your wardrobe choice. I have been known to pack an entire extra outfit for big events like this because I’m certain that I will break a heel and spill coffee on my jacket and rip my dress simultaneously, so it brings me peace of mind knowing that I’ve got a back up.

Clothes —

You’ll want a matching jacket & bottom layer (whether pants, a skirt, or a dress), and a conservative blouse or button up. You want to be comfortable with your outfit without the jacket as well, in case you need to take it off at any point (i.e. your interview goes well and they invite you to lunch, you’re dying of heat so you take it off for a moment in a conference room but then the stakeholder you’re presenting to walks in early). Go neutral on colors here: black, dark blue, or grey. Keep patterns really minimal like a neutral color stripe or similar. If you bought a new suit for the big day (yay!) wear it a few times around your house to make sure everything fits comfortably. Remove all the tags and the threads that keep the pockets and back slits on jackets dresses, and skirts closed. Try walking up stairs, sitting, and any other movement you might anticipate like writing on a whiteboard. (Side note: if you’re ever erasing a whiteboard in front of someone else, erase from top-to-bottom, not side-to-side. That will avoid any unintended booty-shaking!)

Shoes —

Something sturdy, well-made, and close-toed. I am a huge fan of heels, and I love wearing them, but the most important thing here is that you are comfortable. Don’t wear heels if you hate them! If you go with heels, I personally wouldn’t go higher than 4” because then I feel a little unstable and they hurt my feet a lot, which is distracting. There are lots of good flat options these days that are perfectly acceptable as business professional. If someone tells you otherwise, that’s a red flag for ya, sister. Make sure you choose something that does not resemble a sneaker or athletic shoe. Also, please do not wear brand new shoes unless you have given them a thorough test in your house. You don’t want to find out too late that the shoes rub your ankle or that they squeak incessantly on tile floors. My recommendations would be a neutral color high heel (4” or less) that you feel stable in, a structured ballet flat (I like my Rothy’s), or a loafer style shoe. I’m pretty adamant on no toes at work; keep those piggies covered. No one’s toes are pretty, and you can skip the last-minute toe polish.

Accessories —

Keep jewelry minimal and classic. If you expect to shake anyone’s hand, be mindful of bracelets on your right wrist that might fall and get painfully caught in the handshake (Ask me how many times I had to learn that lesson the hard way…) Simple earrings and a delicate or meaningful necklace is a good combo. Consider wearing a watch in the off chance you don’t have access to a clock otherwise. If it’s especially cold, opt for a neutral colored scarf, coat, or other accessory. Similar advice if it’s raining; it’s always good to have a black rain jacket on hand!

Hair & Make-up —

The most important consideration for your hair is that it stays out of your face so you aren’t distracted by it. A lot of us have a habit of running our hands through our hair, especially when nervous, so it’s this is you, considering pulling your hair all the way up. My sweet spot is a side part half-up/hair-down, hair sprayed to to the high heavens ‘do. My hair still frames my face nicely, but I’m not tempted to brush it out of my eyes, and it isn’t going to move much on its own. For your make-up, the only real advice I have here is to practice. I know some women who never wear make-up, and they feel perfectly comfortable with that, so if that’s you, great! If you do want to wear some or a lot, practice ahead of time and wear it for a few hours to make sure everything still looks how you want it to in a few hours and in different lights. Generally speaking, you want to keep your make-up natural looking, sticking to neutral shades for eyeshadows and not going too heavy on eyeliner or lipstick. If you do choose to wear lipstick, definitely test this out to see how long it lasts and what it looks like when it inevitably fades. Bring it with you and do a touch-up in the bathroom when needed.

Business Casual

Business Casual can be both a special occasion wardrobe or an every day one. If it’s a special occasion, all the same advice above applies, but we get to have a bit more fun with it.

Clothing —

Take it down one notch from Professional. You’ll want to stick with your nice slacks, pencil skirt, or dress that you chose in the professional category. But for business casual, you can lose the formal suit jacket and go with just a blouse / button up top or opt for a fun, casual blazer instead. You can safely play with patterns here, too, but limit it to just one statement piece across your clothes, shoes, and jewelry.

Shoes —

Same as Professional: Heels if that’s your thing, ballet flats, loafers. No sandals or sneakers. My leopard-print loafers are a staple in my Business Casual rotation.

Accessories —

A bit looser than professional, maybe throw on a layered necklace, or a colorful set of earrings. As mentioned above, keep it to one statement item in business casual, so a colorful scarf or a patterned belt on an otherwise neutral outfit is a solid approach.

Hair and Make-up —

Similar to Professional, you’ll want to keep hair out of your face and your make-up mostly natural looking. It depends on the setting, but your one statement item in your outfit could be a bright lipstick or a high ponytail. Otherwise, stick to the basics here, After all, we’re still on the “business” side of the spectrum.

Smart Casual / Snappy Casual

In my experience, most companies are going with this category these days, and each one ranges greatly on how formal or casual this is. I won’t break out this out into categories because the advice is mostly the same: the name of the game in Smart Casual is variety. If this is your every day dress code, you’ll want to mix it up and find what’s most comfortable for you. You can really play here with a few different statement pieces or mixing patterns, and having light, bright colors.

The top you wore in business casual? Keep it! Those pants? Swap them out for jeans, and you’re done! The primary difference between smart casual and business casual is the introduction of jeans — hallelujah! You can include more casual dresses and skirts. Sometimes nice sneaker-style shoes are acceptable here but that will depend on your specific workplace. No sandals, though. #NoToesAtWork 🙂 Accessories, hair, and make-up of all kinds are cool here. Express yourself while staying professional. Again, each work environment will be a little bit different, so you can always start more neutral/formal and loosen up as you see what the trends are.


If you loved your jeans in the Smart Casual category, congrats, you get to keep them here too! Add on your favorite polo or t-shirt and you’re ready to roll. Sneakers here are generally widely accepted, so throw on your Vans or running shoes and enjoy your casual day. Wear your accessories, hair, and make-up however you please.

Athletic / Weekend Casual

Okay, so I’m not sure this is a real category, but it’s worth bringing up. Every once in a while, you will have an informal company event like a Saturday picnic or a meeting at the zoo followed by time to hang out with the animals. In my experience it has always been explicitly stated that “shorts and t-shirts are appropriate for this event” so it’s pretty clear the level of casual we’re talking here. For this, keep in mind that these are your coworkers, so opt for things that you’re comfortable in if your photo gets taken and shared on the company’s website for the next few years. I have a few pairs of 5 inch inseam shorts that have worked great for these occasions, and as always, bring layers in case the temperature is unexpected.

Work From Home

Before March of 2020, I would have no good direction to give here, but thanks to COVID-19, I’ve got several weeks of WFH experience under my belt!

When I started, I was a purist — I got fully ready every day, with work clothes, work shoes (!), and hair and makeup done, and then went to work in my office that was approximately 30 feet from my bed. Since then, I’ve certainly relaxed, and while I still put on work tops every day, I’m wearing casual bottoms like leggings or shorts. Most days, I wear shoes as well, but that’s because I got a standing desk a few weeks in and I appreciate the extra support while I’m standing! I’ve minimized my make up routine to mascara, eyeliner, and eye shadow most days, plus lipstick before video meetings to help look a bit more put together.

Check with your work to see if they have a specific protocol (I know one company that still required Smart Casual — at least on top) and then try out different things to see what works best for you. I believe that putting on full work clothes in the beginning helped me transition into truly working at home, rather than just hanging out all day. Now that I’m in the swing of things and feel comfortable getting down to business in my house, I’m a big fan of my comfy shorts.

What about Fridays?

This varies from office to office, so ask around and observe yours specifically, but most offices will do either Smart Casual or real Casual on Fridays. Jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers welcome. Hello, weekend!


What if I’m working with a bunch of guys?

Excellent question. A lot of my advice above revolves around looking around your work environment to see what other people are wearing. But what if you are working with a bunch of people who will never wear a skirt? I have been here, and so have MANY of my coworkers. Here’s a little mapping exercise that will hopefully help you navigate which category the dress code is:

  • If they’re wearing suits with a jacket and tie, Business Professional
  • If they’re wearing slacks with a blazer and/or tie: Business Casual leaning Professional
  • If they’re wearing slacks with no blazer or tie: Business Casual leaning Casual
  • If they’re wearing a shirt with a collar (short or long sleeve) and jeans: Smart Casual
  • If they’re wearing a t-shirt and jeans: Casual

Additionally, in my experience on working with lots of guys, they don’t really know what women wear in these different dress codes, so you kinda get to make it up. Sometimes that works in your favor — I’ve worn very comfortable clothes that they thought looked quite fancy and formal — and sometimes it doesn’t — I once wore a jumpsuit that was very chic, in my opinion, and I was asked if I was wearing pajamas.


Happy Dressing!



Explore more categories:  Interview Prep, Professional Life

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