If you’re the governor of Illinois, you don’t have to worry about your wardrobe.
JB Pritzker’s calendar tells him where to be, when to get there, and what to wear. “Business: suit and tie.” Khakis, “button-down and pullover,” or “polo with Columbia jacket.”
The Associated Press used the Freedom of Information Act to get a peek at Pritzker’s wardrobe advice. Staff told him to skip the tie when he hosted dinner for union leaders. On the other hand, “Bring extra tie options” was the note on the day of his official portrait.
The rest of us have to figure it out for ourselves.
Turns out you can find plenty of guidance from business schools, retailers and employment agencies. (And maybe from your wife—that’s where Frank gets all his directions for dressing.)
It can be complicated when you consider Business Formal, Business Professional, Business Casual…there’s even a category called Small Business Casual, also known as Start-up Chic.
Here are some of the top tips for men.
- A suit (navy, gray or black). Some experts let you get away with a sport coat. They all suggest conservative colors and patterns.
- Long-sleeved shirt with a button-down collar, in a solid color—you can’t go wrong with white or blue.
- A quality tie in a conservative color with a subtle pattern. Nothing flashy or bold.
- Black or brown oxfords or loafers, well-shined, that coordinate with your suit.
- Dress pants or crisp, pressed khakis.
- Collared shirt, maybe in an actual color or even a pattern. You could go for a polo shirt if you’re feeling adventuresome.
- Add a blazer or sweater to dress it up some; the third piece adds polish.
- Loafers or oxfords. “Casual” doesn’t mean sneakers or sandals.
Here are some of the top tips for women.
- A suit (skirt or pants) in navy, black or brown. Some experts say a blazer’s okay instead.
- Collared shirt in white or a pastel. Or a sleeveless shell under your jacket.
- Closed-toe pumps (or dressy flats, if you must) in a color to match your suit.
- A small purse in a matching color, conservative jewelry—no dangling or jangling.
- Business separates—pants or skirt with a blazer or cardigan. I tell my clients who want a more powerful presence to go with the jacket instead of a sweater. The shoulder seams provide some definition, creating a stronger look than the softer, rounder appearance you get with a sweater.
- You could choose a dress that covers everything you’d want covered. Not too short, no plunging necklines. And in many offices, sleeves are a good idea.
- Closed-toe shoes or maybe dressy sandals that don’t flap noisily when you walk.
- Your bag and jewelry can have a little more pizzazz.
Straight-out Casual or Start-up Chic—for Everyone
- In terms of tops, most colors and patterns are okay. Stay away from T-shirts with sports logos or other messages on them.
- Dark-wash jeans or other casual, long pants.
- Boots, sneakers and sandals are fine. (If we’re seeing your toes, get a pedicure.)
- If your office is casual, you can express yourself with accessories and jewelry—but keep the clubbing clothes in the closet.
Is your heart sinking?
These guidelines seem pretty restrictive to me. A suit? Really? I’ve owned one suit in my entire professional life. (When I was working at a bank, I actually bought a pin-stripe suit.) And what’s with all the “conservative color” stuff?
I say there has to be room for individuality. Your age and shape make a difference in how you dress, along with your personal taste. Do you love bright colors, or do you go for soft and muted? Heels or flats? Boxers or briefs? (Okay, I’m kidding about the last one.)
It matters what kind of work you do too. If you’re a banker or an attorney, chances are your wardrobe is on the more formal side, and it should be. In advertising or entertainment, you have more freedom; creative clothing and accessories may even be expected.
I’m not sure any of the style mavens would recommend my own business “uniform.” Black pants, black shell or tank (picture a “column” of black) and a jacket with lots of color and not much structure. Oh, and jewelry that’s, well, not inconspicuous.
Not the standard work wardrobe, perhaps, but it works well for me. And that’s really the key, don’t you think? Wearing clothes that work for you, even if they’re not exactly what you’d see in a fashion magazine.
My suggestions for you, whatever your style.
- Dress the body you have now, not the body you had at 27 or the one you’re going to have after a month of Keto.
- Clothes fit if you can stand up from a chair and start talking, without tugging at your jacket or fussing with your belt. Those nervous movements betray anxiety; wear clothing that needs no adjustment.
- Buy the best quality you can afford—well-made clothes hang smoother, look better, and last longer. Forget Fast Fashion when it comes to your work wardrobe.
- Age-appropriate is a wonderful thing. No need to dress like an old fuddy-duddy, but Baby Boomers shouldn’t be dolled up like Millennials either.
- Ask a good friend to look at you from behind and say yay or nay. My buddy Bobbi could always be counted on to steer me away from a “butt-hugger” outfit.
- If you need help, spend some time with a professional stylist. Ask friends for a recommendation or check out the Association of Image Consultants International.
And, by all means, post a comment below about your own style and work wardrobe lessons you’ve learned.
Great article, Catherine! When I was in the Air Force, I knew what to wear every day – a uniform. When I went into civilian life, I didn’t have appropriate business clothes and was stymied on how to dress appropriately. Luckily, that was when the book ‘Dress for Success’ was popular so I devoured it hungrily. Going from a uniform to a suit was comfortable for me but accessorizing was not. Through the years and various positions with various companies, I’ve developed my own style with color, comfort, and jewelry. The older I get, the less I care about others’ opinions of my outfits and am happy with my colorful and comfortable leggings, tunics, and long cardigans – and bold jewelry but I would not have been so in the early days of my career. So, age and experience also come into play in the ‘dress for success’ game of careering.
A uniform makes the what-to-wear challenge much easier to deal with, doesn’t it, Gail? I’m with you on age and experience. At a certain point in a career, we have (or we take) more freedom to wear what works for us as opposed to what the fashion gurus dictate. I do think it’s important for emerging professionals to focus on what’s deemed appropriate for their position and/or their employer. First, second, even third job out of college, they’re still under the microscope–it’s smart for them to do everything they can to position themselves as poised, polished and ready for prime time.
PS: Back in the Dress for Success days, you didn’t wear one of those goofy neck bows, did you?
Thank you for this How to Dress Reminder! As a small business person, it’s all to easy to get too relaxed and informal. I’ve been attending 2 weekly networking groups for 5 and 10 years each. Many years ago I went informal wearing jeans and a decent top or sweater (over my cuddle duds 9 months/year). Recently the “Education” member in one group read an article about dressing for business and how it may make a difference in the referrals one is given. He read that the other members in your group may imagine you presenting to a referral as they normally see you week-to-week . . . That hit home for me and now I’ve decided to go back to dressier black slacks at least until I take the time to upgrade my business wardrobe! Even then, I will not be found in a skirt, dress, heels, or, with bear legs in such things – ugh!
You’re right, Barb, those of us with smaller businesses can go too far in the direction of informality and wind up creating an impression that doesn’t serve us well. I don’t blame you, though, for drawing the line at skirts and heels. And I’d think people don’t expect to see their printer in a fancy dress. What we do and where we do it makes a big difference in what we should wear while we do it.
Good advice, Catherine. The work fashion landscape remains very fluid. I was recently sitting in the lobby of a national retail chain during mid-week, wearing a suit and tie waiting to make a call. During the 15 minute wait, I observed the company employees walking by. The casual dress code thing had seemingly been taken to the extreme, with a number of men in old faded jeans and flannel shirts and women in leggings and tight kinit tops. It struck me as very unprofessional. I welcomed the business casual dress movement but have seen it morph into sloppy and unprofessional in many companies. The industry in which you work is important in determining what type of dress is appropriate.There is a balance to be struck, for sure, but when making a sales call or attending a function where there is doubt, it is always advisable to err on the side of “overdressing.”
I agree that some people have taken business casual to mean just plain casual, Tom, and it hurts their credibility. There’s the rare expert who has such a strong reputation that how they dress doesn’t make much difference. But for most of us, dressing professionally is a much better bet. It’s especially true for people who are still establishing themselves in their field. Like it or not, people make up their minds about us quickly — often before we’ve said anything. What we wear plays a role in the impression we create.
Depends on whom some people want to impress. Correct, ” What we wear plays a role in the impressionism we create”