Dressing for the Workplace: Some Tips

Source: Pixabay

By: Marie Donlon

Dressing for the office used to be a simple matter: Men wore button down shirts and ties. For women, it meant a blouse coupled with either a skirt (below the knee) or slacks.

Now, because we have become more relaxed as a society, so too has our attitude about dressing for the office. As "business casual" can have many definitions and iterations, it would help to have a few tips to shed some light on what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace.

How you dress says everything about how you value yourself and is often the first thing that others notice about you. Consequently, it is very much tied to another’s’ first impression of you. And as a walking billboard for your company, whether in the office or doing business with customers, how you feel about your company can be, pardon the wordplay, quite literally "worn on your sleeve."

While there are no hard and fast rules about workplace attire and the rules can vary from company to company, using the following general tips as a guide may help you make appropriate wardrobe decisions befitting the environment.

Dress Codes

Although there are surely many others, these are some of the more familiar terms used to describe workplace dress code: executive dress, business casual and casual attire.

While each category is fairly self-explanatory, the lack of consistent definitions blurs the lines between acceptable and unacceptable dress. So what do they mean?


There is no confusing what executive dress means: For men, it is conservative blue or gray suits with matching ties. Likewise, for women executive dress means conservative jacket and pantsuit or jacket and dress skirt of the same color family. The keyword here is conservative.

Business Casual

Business casual, often practiced in warmer climates, is a modification of traditional workplace dress, with a focus on marrying comfort with a neat overall appearance. Clothing items can include slacks and chinos, button-down shirts without a jacket and casual skirts and dresses.

Casual Attire

Casual attire is another term that can confuse and induce panic in those needing guidance. According to research, this term can result in a veritable free-for-all as is popular with many tech and media companies. For instance, it was reported that a few Apple employees regularly wore sweatpants and bare feet in the office. That information left me feeling panicky and ready to call for a worldwide fourth category of workplace dress called "Von Trapp Family" where we are all outfitted in similar uniforms with slight variations to hint at our "unique" personalities.

So what are things we should consider when dressing for work?

Neat Appearance

This should be so obvious and yet it isn’t! Avoid a sloppy presentation. You are your company, whether you like it or not. Out in the world, you are their representation. That’s not to say your employer can tell you how to dress at home, but while you are under their gaze, you should be clean and pulled together.

Flip Flops and Other Frowned-Upon Footwear

Everyone should avoid flip-flops. The sucking sound of foamy composite hitting the back of your foot should not become the "white noise" in a professional office setting. Although most offices allow for open-toed shoes, research advises men to avoid this type of footwear at all costs.

Another interesting note about footwear concerns the Birkenstock brand of sandal specifically. According to research, most companies would rather see an employee wearing flip-flops over the Birkenstock sandals because, according to researchers, the footwear is emblematic of a relaxed lifestyle. Not always the message employers want to impart about their workplace culture.


Did you get dressed this morning with the goal of looking like you stepped out of a music video from the 90s? Cut-off shorts (denim or otherwise), particularly revealing ones, should be left at home. No matter how laid back your workplace, these should never see the light of (work) day.

That is not to say that shorts shouldn’t be worn in the workplace at all. Tailored shorts that hit the knee are perfectly acceptable in the workplace. A good rule of thumb: If the shorts you are wearing summon the word "booty," go home and change.

Again, as in the case of open-toed footwear, men are discouraged from wearing shorts in the workplace, no matter how casual the atmosphere.

Aging Clothes

If some of your classic wardrobe pieces are aging or wearing from over-use, try to move those items to the back of your closet. While you may be rocking a designer label jacket, no one will be impressed that it is over twenty years old.


Avoid showing unnecessary skin. Particularly in the warmer months, people attempt to modify the definitions of their workplace dress codes by eeking in a flip-flop or maybe undoing an extra button. Depending on the atmosphere, a button or two, or rolled up sleeves may be acceptable. So too is it acceptable for women to expose bare (no stockings or pantyhose) legs in the workplace (Yes. This antiquated provision has only recently been modified in executive- and business-style dress codes.). It is also perfectly acceptable for women to go sleeveless in the workplace. Here again, men are exempted from the provision and are encouraged to cover up sleeveless arms in the workplace.

Exposed cleavage is never acceptable in the workplace, no matter how casual, (unless you work in a very specific industry, that is). Likewise, men are encouraged to avoid lavish displays of chest hair.


If your workplace encourages a relaxed dress code and jeans are welcomed, make sure that your jeans are in good repair and that they fit appropriately. After all, a visible thong or rumpled boxer short will not do anything for your movement in the company…well, apart from the adjustments you make for comfort, that is.

Other Items to Avoid

Other clothing to avoid at the office: sneakers (you aren’t running), yoga pants (this isn’t yoga), wrinkled clothing, what you wore the day before (um, need I explain), anything see-through, animal print, and, probably most important, mesh (what are you, a wrestler?).


It is also a good rule of thumb to avoid being overly "scented." Whether you have gone overboard with the Ralph Lauren or you’ve cloaked yourself in a fog of Febreeze, consider those seated around you. You don’t want to be the cause for activating someone’s allergies or inducing headaches.


Chron—Types of Workplace Attire

Monster.com—What’s Business-Casual Attire?

Monster.com—What Not To Wear To Work

Monster.com—Work Attire: What’s Appropriate and What’s Not?