How to Style and Own Business Professional Attire (with Examples)
In business, as in life, you only get one chance to make a great first impression—and while your skills count, so does the image that you present to the world! Knowing how to pick the right business professional attire and how to leverage it to enhance your reputation, project the image you want, and keep you feeling on top of the world and confident in your talents, is a skill set that every smart man needs. Today, the experts on the Oliver Wicks team will break down everything that the modern man needs to know about business professional attire, how to style it, and how to make yourself—and your expertise—look like a million bucks, effortlessly.
At its simplest, professional business attire is simply a catch-all term for appropriate clothing to wear in a business environment. Obviously, that’s open to a lot of interpretation and will vary from workplace to workplace depending on the overall vibe of your office, any physical demands made on you in your workday, safety standards, and a lot more. Think of it as like event and wedding dress codes, but for the workplace! Matching the appropriate attire to the right space is a critical “soft skill” that many modern men lack. So, don’t feel bad if you’re not sure what’s appropriate and what isn’t—we are here to help you nail it down and get you ahead.
Some workplaces are fine with a very casual vibe, and for these, we’ve already unpacked business casual to help you out. However, despite the move to a more relaxed workplace happening across the board, with less than 9% of white-collar workers now using business professional attire daily, it is still an important part of your wardrobe if you want to get ahead professionally.
As work-from-home and remote work become the norm, many of us are dressing very casually, but several professions and locations still need a more formal look and almost every worker will need a full business professional ensemble for at least important occasions in their career development. This is where true business professional attire comes into play.
Here, we are embracing a specific office look—for men, traditionally, a high-end, well-tailored suit and shirt in conservative colors, smart ties, dark leather shoes, and appropriate accessories. Business professional attire carries an expectation of certain hygiene and grooming standards, too. We’ll break this all down a bit more for you later.
The idea of wearing specific garments to the workplace is pretty new. While the man’s suit itself evolved in a recognizable form in the 17th century, it wasn’t until the Victorian era that we saw a move towards a specific streamlined and slightly austere look appropriate to skilled work.
This is also when we saw the notion of an “office” properly develop—not simply working in your shop or workshop in a trade, and not wearing your “Sunday best” every day in a life of leisure, but dressing up smartly to head to a specific place of work that carries dignity and professional confidence. Of course, this is also tied to the rise of the Industrial Revolution and a new journey away from manual labor and into professional services and educated labor.
So, smart and well-educated men in these new and respected trades wanted to advertise their trustworthiness and reliability, as well as enhanced work status, to the customers they needed to rely on them. This still holds true today. Would you still trust your accountant or bank manager if they rolled into a meeting with you in holey jeans, worn-down shoes, and a dirty shirt? Even when you know they have the right skills, it’s still a hard nope! Underdressing in the workplace comes across as uncaring, unprofessional, disrespectful to others, and incompetent.
While what fits into a modern workspace has changed a lot from the Victorian era, the overall concept of “dressing to impress” has not. Business professional attire is sleek, impeccably tailored to your body, and projects an aura of trustworthiness, style, and business capability that not only fosters confidence in the people around you but helps boost yours, too.
Many modern workplaces have a dress code for staff that outlines their daily image expectations, and this should be your go-to if you don’t know where to start. However, business professional is typically worn in more conservative occupations, and in positions of power—if you’ve earned that coveted corner office, you will likely wear business professional as your go-to office wear. It’s also the standard for serious and conservative professions, like law, finance, and government work.
You may need to bust out full business professional attire for important milestones in your career, even if your workplace typically leans into business casual (or straight-up casual) for day-to-day work. Think job interviews, important meetings (especially when customer- or investor-facing, or with upper management), lunch or dinner with management, and so on. It is also a solid default for occasions where the dress code is unclear, or you’re not sure what the expectations on your shoulders are.
Are there any places where you shouldn’t wear business professional attire? Especially for men, who have a much more limited set of wardrobe options and a very hard shift between “casual” and “formal” (that women’s attire doesn’t have), it’s hard to ever go wrong with a high-end outfit. Worst case scenario, you’ll look “overdressed.” While it’s not ideal to get the tone of an occasion wrong, being formally and smartly dressed can never really veer into being rude or disrespectful—certainly not in the same way that underdressing can!
A man in a well-tailored suit that fits fantastically does not look gauche or even particularly over-the-top. There’s a reason you see a similar style, albeit a little more personalized and focused on top-end suit brands, as the go-to daywear of important and influential people. So, when in doubt, dress up, not down.
However, there are times when business professional attire is not right for the overall ambiance of a situation. This is particularly important in workplaces or situations where there is standard safety gear to comply with—a hard hat and safety boots are not a great match for even the best suit, and you should never endanger yourself or others just to look good! It’s also not a smart idea for occasions where you will be physically using your body, as you will end up sweaty, dirty, and disheveled. So, if you’re going on a team-building adventure, pack the business professional attire away for the day. Likewise, paying attention to any provided dress code should always be your first point of call.
A smart suit is a good default if you don’t know what’s expected of you, but when your workplace has taken pains to tell you what they do expect, comply with it. You will look a little out-of-place in a business casual workplace if you’re the only soul who is always dressed to the nines. Remember the old HR advice—look at your upper management, and take dress cues from them if you are uncertain. If you’re heading to an interview, mine this sort of data from pictures of the workplace and influential figures within it.
The easy answer is, yes, it is!
Overall, even the most conservative workplaces have gotten a lot less formal in recent years. You will even spot accountants and lawyers in more relaxed ensembles today, and the jackets do occasionally come off. So, there’s been a knee-jerk reaction to write off business professional attire as “old-fashioned” and “unnecessary” by many people.
However, ask yourself this, is risking your professional reputation worth it just to whine about a dress standard or make a point that jeans are more comfortable? Then, ask yourself the question we posed earlier, would you trust someone in a senior position, or with a lot of power over you, with your finances, your court proceedings, and other important matters if he looked like he’d just rolled out of bed? Would you hire someone who can’t even be bothered to dress well for an interview?
Building a successful career needs skills and expertise, but your image is also a part of that skill set and you will need to leverage it to build your reputation. Underdressing for any role makes you look slovenly, and it’s easy for people to form an impression that you carry that same lackadaisical attitude into your real work. Likewise, if someone else has taken the time and attention to detail to dress well to meet you, missing the mark makes you look disrespectful toward their time and input.
While what counts as appropriate for a business professional (and even business casual) look will evolve as workplaces do, making sure that you match the expectations of customers, investors, important corporate figures, and your profession will always be a need in the workplace.
So, now you know a little bit more about this class of business-suitable clothes, let’s break it down into some specifics.
A classy, well-tailored suit is the focal point of business professional attire, and is where most of your money should be invested. A classic business suit is a 2-piece, in a dark color. Black, however, carries funerary vibes, so most men should aim for a practical navy or dark charcoal suit as the cornerstone of their wardrobe. The jacket and pants must be of the same color and material, typically a traditional wool or wool blend. A tuxedo is not appropriate for business, and while some people with well-established careers may opt for a 3-piece suit, it’s often seen as a little too personal. A subtle pinstripe can work, but otherwise keep patterns to a minimum.
Try this easy-to-wear and style navy suit from our collection—there’s plenty more options to add and build up your wardrobe over time, too. Remember, every Oliver Wicks suit is custom created to your specific measurements.
Under your suit jacket will lie your long sleeve shirt. For traditional business professional looks, this should be a dress shirt with French cuffs and understated cufflinks. Many modern workplaces will now accept a less formal barrel cuff. It should be a solid and conservative color (when in doubt, veer white), immaculately pressed, and the collar should be properly starched. While it is rare to remove your jacket, make sure your sleeves fit properly in case this is called upon. In a hot climate, a linen shirt can be a good choice, but cotton should always be your default.
Try our basic white cotton shirt for timeless style, or try this subtle ivory for understated elegance.
Again, stay conservative. Use a standard knot in a simple, yet classy tie, with subdued designs that are appropriate to the workplace. Dark ties tend to offer a very formal look, and you can include some stripes if you really want to go for something business specific.
This elegant, navy silk tie will finish your new look perfectly.
Leather dress shoes in a dark color are a must. Oxfords are typically a great choice. Make sure they are in good condition, well polished, and not overly flashy
Whether or not to opt for a belt is currently a matter of debate. However, if your suit pants have belt loops, a belt is essential. Keep it simple and understated and match it to the leather of your shoes.
Cufflinks should be sleek and professional if you are using them, with minimal adornment and flash.
While a great high-end watch will finish your look, you’ll want little other accessories for business professional dress codes.
It’s not enough to just wear this look, you need to wear it well. So, make sure that each garment fits properly, and don’t hesitate to get a tailor to tweak anything as needed. An impeccable fit speaks a thousand words for your care and attention to detail. Remember—there’s nothing that looks better than a suit that fits you! That’s why the Oliver Wicks team crafts made-to-measure garments that are designed to enhance your body, no matter what nature gave you to work with.
Make sure that you match your new look, too! A key part of business professional attire is your hygiene. So, make sure you have well-cut and styled hair, clean nails and hands, and so on. Consider using a professional scent or aftershave, but don’t go overboard.
Now that you know everything you need to put together a solid business professional ensemble, it’s time to elevate your look—and your career—with the help of the Oliver Wicks team. If you still need some help and guidance to help you make the most of yourself, you can always sign up to the Oliver Wicks mailing list and have tips, tricks, and more, delivered conveniently to your inbox—as well as some fantastic discounts. You can sign up quickly from any page on our website, so don’t miss out. And, if you have any specific questions, our helpful team is always here to assist, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck in climbing that career ladder!