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Dress Codes

Updated: May 24, 2020

Business Formal, Business or Smart Casual? You hear these terms all the time. But what do they really mean – and more specifically, what do they mean for us, professional women? There are no clear definitions and some of the codes vary depending in your country, industry and/or the company you work for. So it’s easy to get confused by all the various dress code naming and interpretation.

a dress code guide for business women

So what do these terms mean in a corporate environment?

All good things comes in threes. This is no exception, I tend to believe that:

There are three dress codes that really matter for anyone working in a more conservative setting: Business Formal, Business and Smart Casual.

The golden rule: always aim for Business Formal and Business depending on your agenda of the day. If you have an important meeting with your colleagues or with clients, Business Formal is the right choice. If you work for a less conservative company, go for Business on a daily basis. The nice thing is that it allows you to be stylish yet professional.

1. Business Formal:

Business Formal is the most conservative style of the three. Conservative should not mean dull and uninteresting. Feel free to express your personality through your clothing even in formal wear. The most important thing is to find the right balance between a professional image and style. Choose interesting cuts in high quality fabrics and complement your look with timeless accessories to make the difference.

What does business formal look like?

  • Statement dress, skirt or pantsuits or separates.

  • The best options for shoes are classic pumps or flat dressed shoes. Some companies will allow open toe shoes and sandals. But if you work in a law firm, in a bank, in finance or in politics open toes or strappy sandals are a no go.

  • Ideal hem length for skirt and dress: If you want to project a professional image, the shortest hem length you should aim for is right above the knee. Ask yourself: do you want to be remembered for your skirt or for what you have to say?

2. Business:

How to define Business and when should you wear it?

Business is a touch more relaxed than the Business Formal code but dressier than Smart Casual. So I think of it a bit like the “in between” style. Personally I’m in Business mode when I have no client meetings and no important internal meetings during the day. You’ll have more options with the Busines code and it will allow you more freedom to express your own style. But it’s also the most challenging code as the balancing act will be more tricky. You need to look professional and relaxed. And the variety of possible options and style could work against you if you don’t strike that balance right.

What does business casual look like?

  • Dress, separates like skirt/pant paired with a blouse in silk or other light feminine fabrics, classy knitwear like a jumper and cardigan are great options.

  • Business does not include any type of jeans (pants or otherwise).

  • As for the shoes, a pair of closed toe pumps, flat dressed shoes are a great options. No open toe shoes or strappy sandals for business.

3. Smart Casual:

Smart Casual is the dress code you wear on casual Friday, to a work retreat or team building event. I personally would not advise any woman to wear Smart Casual on a regular business day. I usually only surf between Business Formal and Business. In 7 years I wore once a pair of light grey bootcut jeans to a team building event. But that’s also my personal choice :). In any case, you should never aim lower than Smart Casual.

What does smart casual look like?

Smart casual is a little bit dressier than a weekend casual. It’s the most relaxed dress code of all. But as the name “smart casual” implies: be smart about it. Take that little extra step to look the part. Smart casual doesn’t mean: destroyed jeans, sneakers and t-shirt. That’s casual mode, which you should keep for your weekends.

  • Jeans are acceptable but keep in mind that you’re still at work, so save your ripped, low rise and skinny jeans for the weekend. Go for a classic jeans in a dark denim. As for the shape, straight, bootcut and wide-leg jeans are great options for work on a casual Friday.

  • Flip-flops and sneakers are a no-go. Open toe and sandals are acceptable on nicely polished manicured feet.

I hope that this article will bring you some guidance and inspirations. Even if you have the adjective “casual” in Smart Casual, remember that you are at work. Keep your flip-flops, tank tops and sundresses for vacation. And your beloved mini-skirt, skinny jeans and bare shoulder tops for a night out. When in doubt “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”

What is most common dress code in your work environment?

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