Business attire for women

What, exactly, is “appropriate” business attire? That’s sort of like asking, “How long is a piece of string?” It’s not a “one size fits all” proposition. It depends on several things, including your line of work, your corporate culture, and your audience.

If you have strong skills and you get the business attire right, the “sky’s the limit” in your field. But if you fumble on the dress code -even if you’re technically competent -your climb will slow considerably, if not stall completely. How you look will open (or close) the door to opportunity; what you know will keep you in the room.

Here are the basic things you need to consider when putting together your business attire wardrobe:

Your Line of Work

Mention the word “business attire” and most people think of a business suit . While suits are certainly appropriate for some businesses, they’re not for everyone. Would you wear a suit to teach grade school kids or pour concrete? Of course not! So start with what you do and go forward from there.

For example:

Traditional businesses like law, finance, banking, and accounting call for the traditional business suit. Simple styles and dark colors work best to establish a competent, authoritative look. If you’re interviewing with a company and don’t know the dress code, a suit will serve you well.

Creative businesses like advertising, art, fashion, and entertainment call for a more creative approach to traditional attire, including unusual colors or fabrics. It does not mean wild and wacky. You want to come across as creative but competent.

People-Oriented businesses like teaching, medicine, social work, etc., call for business attire that both conveys expertise but is non-threatening. Collars and coordinated separates do this well. The goal is to look knowledeable yet still be approachable.

Physically Demanding jobs like house cleaning, fitness training, and child care provider call for attire that’s comfortable and easy to clean. To instill confidence, it should fit well and not be loose and sloppy.

Want specific recommendations for each industry? This will help >>

Your Corporate Culture

The next thing you should think about is your corporate culture.

While one company may have a very strict business dress code, another company in the same field may be much more relaxed. If you adapt your wardrobe to “fit in” with your company, you’ll succeed much faster (in terms of promotions and/or getting staff compliance) than if you simply resign yourself to the notion that everyone is either over- or underdressed, in your opinion, and you’re going to march to your own drum.

Your Audience

Who is your audience? The people who most influence your paycheck: your clients, potential clients, management, colleagues, staff, students, etc.

You need to dress to:

1. Be relatable to them.

2. Fit their perceived image of someone in your role.

If you intimidate your clients, embarrass your manager, or have people look you over from head to toe in disbelief, you probably haven’t dressed for your audience. You also aren’t going to get very far. You need to dress how they’ll feel most comfortable doing business with you.

For example:

Imagine if you were selling a $300,000 harvester to a farmer in rural Kansas. Now imagine if you were selling a $300,000 diamond necklace to a socialite in Kansas City.

Same dollar figure, probably similar commissions. Completely different audiences.

Need help dressing for your audience? This will help…

Remember: to get what YOU want, you have to give people what THEY want. And what they want, at least initially, is someone they can relate to or someone who fits the perceived image of the role.

If you pass that test, then they’ll go to the next level of learning more about you. If you don’t, the ball stops there.

In a lot of ways, it’s almost like dating: if someone catches your eye, you might want to know more about him/her; if not, you pass right over.

So the next time you’re standing in your closet trying to figure out the most appropriate business attire for a given situation, think about your line of work, your corporate culture, and your audience. If you take the time to get it right, the “sky’s the limit” with your career.

Diana Pemberton-Sikes is a wardrobe and image consultant and author of “Wardrobe Magic,” an ebook that shows women how to transform their unruly closets into workable, wearable wardrobes. Visit her online at

Photo © Nicholas Monu