I don’t know about you, but whenever I think of finally getting a job in the real world, you know, a job that offers health insurance and a 401(K) plan, the very next thing that comes to mind is 80’s business fashion. My mind’s eye is filled with pleated pants, terribly-fitting blazers, and shoulder pads. So many shoulder pads.

I seriously wonder how I can look modern and at least somewhat competent in my ability to comprehend style. As a woman, I also have legitimate nightmares about not being able to wear pants in the workplace, but I digress.

So, you want to look fashionably professional? Let’s get started.

The Basics

  • How you dress for work will depend on the job you’re seeking. For example, working in media or in a lower department of a prestigious industry will be more accepting of casual dress than being employed in accounting or law. More professional positions expect more professional fashion etiquette.
  • Always dress above (more formal than) the person who is hiring you. This is essential for attending a job interview.
  • As you’re thinking about a job, observe your potential coworkers and how they accessorize for their day-to-day workload.
  • In the first few weeks of your new job, dress a tad more professional than your coworkers, and then slowly mesh into the work environment style. This is exceptionally important for Millennials to remember.
  • Incorporate as much color as you can into everything. Just make sure it’s not obnoxious (neon colors, busy patterns, mismatched patterns and colors, things of that sort.)

What “Professional” Really Means

According to a guide published by Princeton University, the standards for dressing professionally are as follows:

  • For Men: Suit and tie. Dress shirt should be white or solid colored.
  • For Women: Skirts or slacks, paired with a collared dress shirt or blouse.
  • For Everyone: Avoid jeans unless stated otherwise. Neutral-colored professional footwear is a must, and remember that comfort is an option.

Levels of Professional Fashions

Sylvie di Giusto, founder of Executive Image Consulting and featured in Business Insider, has studied how professionals dress for success for years. She has compiled a guide in her book, The Image of Leadership, breaking down the essential five types of business wear: Baseline Casual, Mainstream Casual, Executive Casual, Traditional Business Attire, and Boardroom Attire.

For now, we’re just going to focus on the main three:


This is the style usually everyone knows and for the most part, accepts. Yoga pants, jeans, cargo pants, shorts, coupled with polos, t-shirts, and everything else average. Maybe you even wear a hat with your casualwear, such as a beanie or a snapback.

If you’re still having trouble understanding it, think of what you wear to school or what you wear on weekends. This is casualwear. Employees should avoid casual dress in the workplace unless otherwise specified.

Business Casual

Business casual is just a step above casual. Such occasions that you may see examples of it are weddings, dinner parties, and work (many secretaries dress business casual).


Image via RifftRax Forum

A few items that are included in the business casual section are slacks, (newer, nicer, better-kept) jeans, blouses, polos, button-up shirts, blazers, sweaters, skirts, dresses, and scarves. This list isn’t exclusive, so don’t freak out if your business casual style doesn’t include all of these clothing items.

Here are some examples:


Image via Whitney Thomas

Image via Whitney Thomas

Business casual, Flickr

Maybe without the Transition Lenses, but you get the idea. Image via Yuri Samoilov, Flickr Creative Commons

Business Formal

When you moved to reading this section, I hope you thought of politicians, CEO’s, and executives, because this is what we’re dealing with here. Think of blazers, button-up white shirts with ties, business suits, pencil skirts, slacks, and Bluetooths.

Okay, maybe the Bluetooth is optional, but you get what I’m saying.

While attending a new job, dress business formal for the first few weeks while you get to know the ins-and-outs of the workplace culture. Then, if you feel comfortable, begin dressing down to match what everyone else is wearing.

Unless you’re working as a social worker, at a law firm, or as a politician, you usually won’t be expected to dress business formal all the time.

So, how do you look professional while maintaining a modern look? Well, let’s find out.

Style Tips for Men + Women 

First and foremost, don’t be afraid to add a little color or pizzazz into your professional wardrobe. Embrace bright colors, unique fabrics, and eye-catching designs. Use subtle additions, such as

The point I’m trying to get at is that showing up to work every morning doesn’t have to be a fashion struggle. You can have fun getting ready for work every day by adding bits of your personality to your wardrobe through the use of unique accessories. In our generation, you can show up for your job stylishly matching a floral blazer with a classy, solid color button up, or a pair of twill pants with a diaphanous blouse, and you can still be regarded as a professional.

Know that you have options, so take a deep breath. You have nothing to worry about.

Additional Resources: 

Business casual for women

Business casual for men

Men’s Professional Style Ideas

Men’s Dress Shoes Guide

Women’s Travel Business Casual Planner

Men’s and Women’s BuzzFeed Clothing Guide

Business Attire Ideas for Women