Guide to Professional Style

Female Business Professional Attire

What should I wear for an interview?
How do "business professional" and "business casual" differ?
What do employers mean by "casual work environment?"

The CES Guide to Professional Style can help you confidently navigate interview and workplace wardrobe questions while showcasing your personal style. If you have other questions, or would like feedback on your interview outfit, CES staff members would be happy to help. Call for an appointment at 253.879.3161.

Business Professional
Business Casual
Building a Professional Wardrobe

The Basics
Even the most casual work environment will expect you to present yourself as a professional. Here are some tips:

Make sure your clothing fits well and provides adequate coverage: Too-tight, too-baggy, or too-revealing clothing doesn't present a polished image.

Ensure that the entire outfit (including accessories) are clean, free of tears, frays, or wrinkles.

Pay attention to the details:

  • Choose a belt and shoes that match.
  • If you are wearing a skirt, wear nylons or tights.
  • Jewelry, watches, and other accessories are least likely to distract when they are small, simple, and kept to a minimum.
  • Don't wear perfume or cologne; the scent can be distracting.
  • Make sure your shoes are shined/clean, and appropriate to the situation. No flip-flops!
  • Wear socks or stockings that match your outfit. No white gym socks!

Business Professional
Business professional is the most formal of workplace attire and is a safe bet for a job interview in most industries. A simple, well-fitting suit in traditional colors (charcoal, navy, or black) will give you the most flexibility and the longest wear. A suit can be an expensive investment, but it can last several years and be well worth the expense.

Male Business Professional Attire

If you don't have a lot of money to spend, find a local tailor. A good tailor can make a less expensive suit fit just as well as an expensive one. We recommend that you have at least two distinct outfits for interviewing, in case you have a second or third-round interview within the same week.

Business Casual
The definition of business casual varies widely by industry and even from employer to employer. In general it is less formal than a suit, but a step up from casual. Here are a couple of examples from more casual to more formal:

Male Business Casual AttireFemale Business Casual Attire

If an interviewer tells you to dress in business casual, it is safest to err on the more formal end of the spectrum. On the job, ask for the organization's dress code policy and look to your supervisors and mentors for guidance.

The casual attire you'd wear to a club on Friday night—or the SUB on Saturday morning—are likely to be very different from your employer's definition of casual. Jeans are generally not acceptable unless expressly stated by the employer, and even then they should be clean, and free of tears, frays, or wrinkles. Always keep the basics in mind.

Consider your environment and audience, and the impression you want to project when you select an outfit—think "saavy casual." Here are a couple examples of casual attire done well:

Female Casual Attire appropriate for the workplaceMale Casual Attire (jeans may or may not be appropriate, depending on the organization)

Building a Professional Wardrobe
You don't have to break the bank to build a professional wardrobe. Here are some tips to get the most out of your money:

The 4 + 4 + 4 rule: 4+4+4=40 possible outfits:
Dana May Casperson, author of Power Etiquette: What You Don't Know can Kill Your Career recommends buying four of each category to start your professional wardrobe:
4 bottoms (slacks/skirts)
4 tops (that can be worn alone or underneath jackets)
4 jackets/jacket alternatives: Cardigan sweaters, sport coats, or other piece that can be worn over a shirt or blouse.
This formula will give you forty outfits that can get you through two months worth of work days. Choose neutral colors (gray, navy, maroon, brown, white, cream, and black) and find accessories that coordinate with multiple pieces.

If you already have two good interview outfits, you're halfway there! Supplement the pieces with other less costly items. Keep an eye on sales at your favorite stores, and make use of discount retailers like Marshalls and T.J. Maxx --even Target-- to round out your wardrobe. Consignment shops can also provide some great options. Most clothing can be altered, so find a good tailor to help transform your bargain buys and make them a perfect fit for you.

One thing you don't want to scrimp on is shoes. There's no need to spend unreasonable amounts of money, but do buy the best quality you can afford - your feet will thank you for it at the end of an eight-hour workday! Your shoes will last longer if you rotate between pairs, and maintain them. A good shoe repair shop can be an asset.

As you grow in your career (and your paycheck grows, too) you will be able to add higher quality pieces to your wardrobe that will generally last longer. Buy the best quality fabric you can afford, but also think about the price of care for that garment. An item that requires weekly dry-cleaning is far more expensive than an item you can wash and iron on your own.

One final thought: Professional attire doesn't have to be stodgy. Advice may suggest conservative - think classic, with modern touches. Express yourself, but don't let your clothing do all the talking.