What Is Professional Business Attire for Women?

Genevieve Ang
fashionable businesswoman

Professional business attire should convey your credibility and competence, but also reflect some personality without going overboard. It is important to understand your office's cultural norms for both business casual and "client-ready" days, as standards differ across states, occupations, and offices.

Determining Your Office Dress Code

How you should dress in your office is largely dependent on your company's dress code and the cultural norms of your office. Companies usually issue employee handbooks with formalized dress codes, and that is also a good starting point to understand what is appropriate to wear in your office.

A good tip is to observe the attire of your supervisors and women who are similar in rank to you in your office for a week or two whenever you start a new job. It is important to pay attention to what they wear on days where there might be an important meeting (when you will typically see the most formal of attire) and ordinary days. Seeing what others wear is the best barometer in determining the appropriate level of formality in your office.

Business Formal Attire

Think of business formal attire as what you would wear to an interview, when you're giving an important presentation to the CEO, or going to court. It's the most formal attire one can wear to work.

Formal Business Suits

Business suits are the most basic building block of business formal attire. They consist of a blazer and either a pair of trousers or a skirt in a matching fabric. It is best to suits in a neutral color, like black or dark grey, and in a seasonless fabric like wool. Talbot's offers a variety of classic, stylish coordinating suit separates (which helps ensure the best possible fit) in styles appropriate for the most formal work environments.

Suits should be well-fitting. Pay particular attention to details like:

  • Length of the sleeves on the blazer. The sleeves should end at your wrist without having down over your hands.
  • How the blazer sits on your shoulders. It should fit snugly at the edge of your shoulders without hanging past.
  • Length of the skirt and the slit at the back of the skirt, especially when sitting down or walking. The skirt should come at least to the top of your knees.
  • Length of the trouser pants, especially when worn with heels or flats. The trouser cuff should hit at the midway-point of either type of shoe, and may need to be tailored depending on your height and height of shoe you typically wear.
  • Button closure in the front. Even if you plan to wear the jacket open, you should be able to comfortably fasten any front button. There should not be a lot of extra room when the blazer is buttoned.

There are trends in business suits, similar to the rest of fashion, but the tried-and-true simple, unembellished suit is appropriate for all formal business occasions.

Formal Business Tops

The buttoned-up shirt is sometimes described as the workhorse of a business formal outfit, because it comes in a huge variety of colors, patterns, and fabrics, and is suitable for all business formal occasions. Pullover shell blouses in lightweight fabrics can also be appropriate to pair with business suits. Ann Taylor has a lovely selection of work-appropriate tops perfect for pairing with business suits.

  • A cotton blend, rayon or silk top is often the best option.
  • The color or pattern you choose should coordinate with your suit. Conservative tones like black, white, burgundy, hunter green navy are good, as are light colors, like baby blue, light pink, and white. Avoid neon tones or anything too trendy.
  • Any neckline you prefer is fine, as long as does not plunge to reveal too much cleavage.

Footwear

Well-made leather pumps are essential to a professional woman's wardrobe. They should be comfortable while remaining stylish and work-appropriate. Both flats and heels are appropriate for the workday. Close toe styles are preferred for formal business wear in most cases. Hush Puppies has a great line of attractive and comfortable shoes for formal business wardrobes.

  • For shoes with heels, ranging from two to four inches are generally recommended for both comfort and maintaining professionalism. Flats can also be appropriate.

  • Two pairs of shoes are necessary at a minimum (though chances are you'll want more than that!). A pair in black leather and a nude patent shoe would be appropriate for most workwear outfits.

  • It is also important to maintain the condition of your shoes. Scuffed toes and worn-down heels are no-no's in a professional situation, so be sure to frequently take them to the cobbler or get them cleaned once a season.

Pearls

Pearls are the ultimate in conservative accessories. In a formal business environment, you will never go wrong with a great set of pearls, be it a pair of earrings or a single-strand necklace. Pearls range dramatically in price points, but cheaper pearls and even fake pearls would be appropriate in the right size. Overstock.com is a great place to find affordable pearl jewelry for your formal business wardrobe. There are also a number of other places to find discount pearl jewelry.

Leather Handbag

A quality designer or other leather handbag large enough to fit letter-sized documents is a necessity in the workplace. The Emma Satchel from Fossil is a great option. For a formal workplace, it's best to buy a handbag in a neutral color, like black or brown, that does not show stains easily. You can find quality leather handbags at a variety of stores and online retailers. Marshall's is a great place to look for high quality bags at affordable prices.

Business Casual Professional Style

Casual dressing in a business environment is extremely different from a casual outfit that one would wear in non-work settings. Business casual attire is often worn in creative industries and on 'casual Friday' days. It is sometimes referred to as smart casual.

Dress Pants

Trousers that are bought separately from a suit will become a central piece of your business casual closet. They come in a variety of cuts: curvy ladies might enjoy bootcut trousers such as those in Old Navy's Mid-Rise style, whereas smaller ladies might prefer the store's more tapered Harper style.

Depending on your office culture, it might not be appropriate to wear colored and patterned pants.

  • For more conservative offices, stick to pants in a solid neutral, like black, navy, or camel.
  • For ladies in more creative industries, you might be able to wear pants in jeweled tones and with subtle patterns, though neon colors and loud prints should be avoided.

Skirts

Pencil skirts and a-line skirts are the most appropriate options for a business casual environment. JCPenney carries a nice selection of Worthington and Liz Claiborne pencil skirts and Macy's has a great choice of a-line skirts from brands like Charter Club and NY Collection.

  • It is best to choose a wool blend or cotton-blend skirt to minimize wrinkling.
  • Printed and colored skirts have become increasingly popular in recent years as well.
  • A denim skirt would not be appropriate for the office.

Appropriate Blouses

In general, blouses appropriate for the workplace have sleeves and are not sheer. Talbot' is a great place to shop for work-appropriate blouses. If you would like to make a sleeveless blouse work for the office, wearing a cardigan or blazer over the blouse would be ideal.

There is a huge variety of blouses out there, but the ones universally appropriate for the workplace are:

  • Silk or rayon shirts in solid colors
  • Bow-tie blouses
  • Cowl neck blouses

Dresses

Work dresses should not be too tight, too short, or overly revealing in general. Old Navy has a nice selection of affordable business casual dresses. Many of their styles can be paired with blazers and cardigans for the colder months, as well as for a polished look throughout the year. Dresses worn in warmer months should have sleeves, as sleeveless looks are generally too casual for most workplaces.

Denim

Jeans are sometimes appropriate for business casual offices, like during 'jeans Fridays.' Before showing up at work in jeans, though, make sure they are acceptable in your office. In general, if jeans are allowed at work, it's best to stick to a darker wash and jeans that are free from rips and tears. The best styles to wear to the office are bootcut (such as Levi's 415), tapered (such as Amanda by Gloria Vanderbilt), and straight cut (such as Levi's 505).

Skinny jeans that are skintight and boyfriend jeans (oversized denim) would not be appropriate for the office.

Chunky Jewelry

Statement necklaces and earrings have become increasingly popular in recent years. They add a pop of color and personality to outfits, but should be worn with care that they do not overly distract or make sounds when you move (for example, avoid bells on your earrings). Premier Designs jewelry (sold through independent consultants at home parties) has affordable costume jewelry pieces inspired by current designer collections.

Fashion Handbag

You can opt for a more relaxed fashion purse to pair with business casual apparel than the basic black leather style best suited for positions that require formal professional apparel. Avoid going with anything that is too casual, such as an oversized canvas tote or a particularly blingy style. Other than 'over the top' looks like those, you can be creative when it comes to selecting your business casual handbag. Organizer purses are a particularly good option. You can find a variety of affordable styles from eBags.com.

Shoes

Business casual outfits can include a little more personality than more formal attire. For example, opt for a pair of burgundy flats (such as the Kelly & Katie Vanya flat) to wear with black pants and a cream shirt, or select a pair of shoes with some studded embellishment, such as Calvin Klein's Jozie Studded Pointed Toe Bootie. The key is to keep it simple and not delve into ruffles, frills, or glitter - these are too casual and do not give a good impression of your competence.

Purchasing Professional Attire

Depending on your budget, prices for a full business professional closet can range from $300 to well over $2,000.

Large Budget

For ladies on a larger budget, the best places for professional business wear are luxury department stores like Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman, which offer high end suiting from Armani and Hugo Boss, and work-appropriate attire from brands like The Row and Celine.

Mid-Range Budget

Stores for purchasing professional attire on a $300-$500 budget include Brooks Brothers, J.Crew, Ann Taylor, and Theory. Department stores like Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom also offer suiting options that fall in this price range.

Entry-Level Budget

There are plenty of great options for finding professional clothing on a budget. If you are just starting out and are in need of a cheaper alternative, fast fashion retailers like H&M, Topshop, and Forever 21 all offer suiting options. However, it is important to take into consideration fit and length, as these cheaper options are typically shorter and tighter than is appropriate for the office. In this situation, spending a little more on tailoring would pay off in the long run.

The Basics of Professional Attire

The keys to professional attire start with cleanliness and well-fitting clothes, as well as avoiding inappropriate attire.

  • A suit, no matter how expensive, will always look dishevelled and unprofessional if it is unironed or too tight.
  • As a rule of thumb, skirts should be no shorter than the tips of your fingers.
  • Buttons on your shirt should not gape open when worn.
  • Suits and trousers bought off the rack often do not fit perfectly, so tailoring may be needed for a proper fit.

Building Your Work Wardrobe

If you're a recent graduate starting out in the workforce, or someone looking to build up your professional workwear closet, it is best to initially purchase two suits (one pantsuit, one skirt suit) in a seasonless fabric like wool, and three to five shirts that pair well with your suits. As you grow into your role or add to your wardrobe budget, accessories and additional trouser, blouse, and dress options can slowly be worked into your closet.

What Is Professional Business Attire for Women?