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Dress Code Guide: What Does Business Formal Mean?

people wearing suits at meeting table in office

For people who’ve worked in strict office environments for years, dressing business formal can seem like second nature. But if you don’t wear this type of business attire often (or ever), dressing for a business formal event can seem daunting.

Part of what makes it so daunting is that a business formal dress code usually means you need to impress people at your job. If you don’t nail your outfit, you could find yourself making the wrong impression and missing out on career opportunities. When the dress code says business formal (or business professional), keep this guide handy to avoid common faux pas.

Business Formal: A Definition

Business formal is the highest level of professional attire. Suits are essential for both men and women, in conservative colors, with polished accessories.

Business formal is nearly interchangeable with “business professional,” but the two do have some slight differences. Business professional typically means your clothes can be slightly more relaxed. For example, a business formal look requires a suit, while business professional looks can include work-appropriate separates.

However, if a dress code says “business professional,” it’s often best to play it safe with business formal clothes. Since these dress codes are almost always associated with work-related events, you don’t want to show up underdressed. Opt for your most formal outfit at first, and then you can relax your look for next time if other people seem a little less dressed up.

When to Dress Business Formal

applicants sitting in waiting room preparing for interview

Business formal might be specified on an invitation, but when it’s not, it’s still the safest choice for lots of job-related activities. Wear your business formal clothes to events like these:

  • Job interviews in traditional industries (like law and finance)
  • At work
  • Awards ceremonies
  • Work presentations
  • Client meetings

Your workplace culture will determine whether you need to dress business formal or not. In many industries, it’s fine to wear business casual or even casual clothes. Check your job’s dress code guidelines and follow whatever they say.

When it’s not a typical work day, but an interview or a special event, consider the industry associated with the event when deciding what to wear. If the industry involves wearing suits to work, you should probably dress business formal for that event.

For interviews, client meetings, presentations, and other times when all eyes will be on you, business formal is almost always the right choice. It’s usually better to be overdressed than underdressed.

However, it is possible for business formal to read as “trying too hard” in more laidback industries. For example, if you’re interviewing for a beer sales rep position at a quirky local brewery, an approachable business casual look would likely be the better choice.

Business Formal Ideas for Women

Women’s business formal clothes include these:

  • Pantsuits and skirt suits
  • Dress shirts
  • Pantyhose

For business formal dress codes, make sure to wear tailored suits in only dark and conservative colors, like gray, navy, and black. Neutral pantyhose are required for business formal looks, too.

If the invite says “business professional” instead, the pantyhose become optional, and you can choose suits in a broader range of colors and patterns (just nothing too wild). Business professional looks can also be created with separate slacks, blazers, and button-downs, rather than full suits.

Closed-toe shoes are appropriate for both business formal and business professional attire. Heels have been traditionally seen as more formal than flats, but that expectation is slowly changing as women speak out about the damage that wearing heels long-term can do. If you do wear heels, keep them low (two to three inches is a good range). This looks more professional and is better for your feet.

Jewelry and makeup should be kept to a conservative minimum. Avoid bright colors and anything too bold or shiny. Simple, practical items like stud earrings, watches, and wedding rings are appropriate.

Business Formal Ideas for Men

When men need to dress business formal, they have a similarly limited list of options:

  • Suits
  • Ties
  • Dress shirts

Suits should be tailored and conservatively colored. White is the most professional dress shirt color, but for business professional (not formal) looks, other neutrals like light blue can work. Ties should be conservative-looking, too.

For business professional events, you can wear slacks and a sport coat or blazer, instead of a full suit. You can also choose from a broader range of colors and patterns for your tie.

Wingtips and brogues make good men’s dress shoe choices, but loafers can also work for a business professional look. The socks should match the color of the pants, and the belt should match the color and finish of the shoes. Make sure it’s a dress belt, not a casual style.

Dressing business formal or professional isn’t about self-expression—it’s about following the rules. This keeps things simple by limiting your choices, but it can also get expensive since you’ll need to pay for high-quality suits and tailoring, plus nice accessories.

If you find yourself at business formal events often, it’s worthwhile to invest in a full professional wardrobe. But if it’s a rare occurrence, consider saving money by renting the suit you need and just buying the accessories.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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