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Understanding Women's Business Dress Code

Business Dress Code VariationsExamples of Business Dress Code HierarchiesWhat assumptions do you make about the roles of each of these women
from their clothes?

Have you ever:

  • Been confused about what to wear to work or to a job interview?

  • Agonized over what to wear to a business meeting?

  • Felt inappropriately dressed in a business situation, leaving you feeling uncomfortable and at a disadvantage?

Then you're not alone.

Most of us were not taught how to dress. We copy our peers and people we admire, but we're not necessarily consciously aware of the image we're creating.

Yet our appearance is so important. We are constantly and instantly judged on things such as what we do, how successful we are and whether the person judging us wants to work with us. And all based to a large extent on how we present ourselves.

Creating the right visual image really does result in a drastic change in how people react to you.

"One morning with Jane over the net and I was honestly changed forever. She helped me navigate to the middle ground of being feminine and polished in a male dominated industry. By putting her guidance into practice I've managed to up my respect and effectiveness at work, while still maintaining all important authenticity.

"I've noticed improvements in how others interact with me, but more surprisingly I've found myself feeling more in control and polished at the same time.

"I can't recommend Jane's services highly enough, invest in yourself!"

Katie Yamaguchi, country NSW, Australia

Levels of Business Attire

It really helps to have some concept of the different business dress code levels.

Below I've illustrated these levels from a business wear perspective. However, the concepts also apply to special occasion wear and leisure wear.

Clothing and accessories can be grouped into 4 levels:

  1. Formal -- in business this is also referred to as a business professional dress code. It represents the highest business dress code level and is typically found in conservative and traditional businesses such as law firms, finance industries and banking.

    women's formal business wearFormal Business Wear

    It's key dressing element is tailored. For example: a conservative, matching suit in a medium-dark or dark color (navy, charcoal, black, chocolate) with a light colored shirt and minimal (real) jewellery; or a tailored dress and jacket. Hosiery is a must. Shoes are classical low to medium heeled pump or court shoes.

    It says: professional, successful, authoritative and competent.

    In many ways this is the easiest business dress code to master, since it is very much like a uniform. Where challenges might arise are in finding quality women's suits in flattering colours that work for your shape and budget. Inject personality with a small injection of color (perhaps in a cuff, or lining, or your underwear) and interesting, but minimal, styling details, such as top stitching of suit lapels, or interesting buttons.

  2. Semi-Formal -- in business this is the first and highest level of business casual and what many of us now-a-days think of as professional business wear. It is typically worn in situations where you need to be well dressed, but a matching suit isn't required. For example, it is often the dress code for creative industries such as advertising, fashion and architecture.

    women's semi-formal business wear Semi-Formal Business Wear

    It is represented by softly tailored clothing and can be a mix of structured and unstructured elements. It's key element is a jacket. For example, a suit-style jacket over a softly tailored dress. Jewellery is still minimal, but nice quality cosmetic jewellery is acceptable. Hosiery is preferred.

    It says: business-like, competent, successful, appropriate

  3. Casual -- this is smart casual wear. It is typically worn in more casual industries such as engineering and technology companies and also in people oriented industries such as teaching and counselling.

    In business it is characterized by a collar. Clothing typically includes some tailoring such as a collar, cuffs, and darts.

    It says: approachable, informal and friendly.

    women's casual business wear Casual Business Wear
  4. Relaxed -- this level of clothing is suitable for those working in physical fields such as trades people, people working with young children and personal trainers. It is not suitable for most business environments.

    women's relaxed business wearRelaxed Business Wear

    Clothes are typically soft, often stretchy, with no tailoring and no collar.

    It says: comfortable and ready for physical activity.

Other Factors that Affect the Business Dress Code

Your Industry

The industry you work in is one of the major factors affecting what's appropriate for you to wear. As you might expect, the more formal the business the more formal the dress code and vice versa.

Your Location

Where you are in the world and whether you work in a city, a suburb, or a regional area also has a big influence on appropriate business wear. Typically in a city levels of dress are more formal than in the suburbs; and regional areas are more informal again.

Weather Conditions

Warmer locations are usually more casual than cooler climates. For instance, lighter colors are typically more acceptable in warmer climates.

Your 'Audience'

When you're meeting with people, especially with clients, it's a good idea to also consider who you're with, the purpose of your meeting, and where the meeting will be held. Do you need to demonstrate your level of authority? Do you want to come across as approachable? Pick your outfit to fit the occasion.

Casual Fridays

For casual office days it's best to choose a dress level one down from your main business dress code. For instance, if your normal business dress is Semi-formal choose 'Casual'. However, stop at the 'Casual' level since the Relaxed level isn't suitable for most businesses.


Selecting an appropriate business dress code level is particularly challenging for us women because there are so many options available to us. So, it's easy to get it wrong.

It's made even more confusing because many around you may be inappropriately dressed.

Dress Like You Mean Business!

There are a number of studies that show that dressing appropriately for your business, even when you're not in front of people, improves your productivity. When you are in front of people dressing appropriately makes you look knowledgeable and competent and results in you being more successful.

Use the dress code levels to work out the typical dress code level appropriate for your industry and locale then, if you're not self employed, look at what your bosses 1 and 2 levels up from your position wear. If you're in the public eye, for example, meetings with clients, pay attention to what they wear too.

If you work for yourself, or you are the boss, it's up to you to set the dress standard, even if it's only by example.

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