Dress like the Pros: A Rookie’s Guide to Business Formal

A Rookie's Guide to Business Formal

Congratulations! You’ve just landed your dream gig after years of hard work, dedication, and several rounds of interviews. The setting: corporate office. The dress code: business formal. So how do you transition from your casual office style to the corporate dress code? Well, we’ve done the homework for you and compiled a simple list of garments and accessories that you can wear to work and feel confident that you are dressed appropriately (and well!) Don’t miss our pictorial guides to show you how to put together outfits appropriate for your new corporate gig.

Business Formal Clothing

It is important to know that the “business formal” dress code is the most strict and conservative workplace dress code. It is not the place to take fashion risks or express yourself with your clothing. Business formal is all about looking pulled together and professional. Your outfit should never distract from you and your work.

The Suit

  • Pant Suit – suit jacket with matching flat front wide leg or straight leg trousers
  • Skirt Suit – suit jacket with matching pencil or straight skirt

Business Formal: the Pant Suit

Business Formal: the Skirt Suit

The specifics of business formal for women are very similar to those for men. It’s all about the suit. Whether it be a pant suit or skirt suit, the top and bottom parts of your suit should be the same color and material. Look for dark neutrals like black, navy, charcoal or medium gray. Some offices may be ok with lighter grays, beiges, dark burgundy or dark green but we recommend against these until you see what other women in the office are wearing. In this dress code, it is not okay to mix suit separates of different colors the way it is in business casual offices. The best suiting material that will work year-round is fine wool. Cotton is another good option for summer. Avoid synthetic fibers like polyester because they can look cheap and are often uncomfortable. Subtle textures and patterns like herringbone, tweed and plaid are okay as long as they are inconspicuous.

Here’s a quick primer video on the right fit for a pant suit.

Shirts & Tops

  • Button-up shirt, white or light blue
  • Blouses

Choosing a shirt or top to wear under your suit is an important part of putting together your outfit. A classic white or light blue button-up shirt is always a classic and safe choice. You can also opt for a blouse with subtle ruffles, pleating or a tie-neck. Be sure to check with your HR department first, as stricter offices may only allow button-ups. Your top should be made out of cotton, silk, silk blend, or even rayon. Avoid any tops that are jersey knit (T-shirt material) or that wrinkle easily (like linen). Your top should be opaque because anything shear is inappropriate for business formal. Stick with more subdued colors and subtle patterns. Anything to too bright or graphic will deter from a professional formal look. The neckline of your top should be high enough so that no cleavage is showing. Button-ups should always be tucked into your trousers or skirt. Some blouses may be left untucked as long as they do not fall more than a couple inches below the waistband of your bottoms. One more thing: dry cleaners are your friend! Make sure that your suits and tops are always cleaned, pressed and ironed when necessary.


  • Tailored Pencil Dress
  • Tailored Sheath Dress

Business Formal: the Dress and Blazer

In most business formal settings, it is acceptable to wear a dress as long as it is paired with a matching suit jacket or blazer. The dress should also be made out of a suiting material like wool, wool crepe, thick cotton or tweed. Like the skirt suit, the hem of the dress should be at the knee or lower.


  • Nude Pantyhose
  • Black, Navy or Gray Sheer Pantyhose
  • Black, Navy or Gray Opaque Tights
  • Camisole or Layering Tank
  • Slip or Half Slip
  • Spanx

Getting the right fit in your outfit is greatly affected by the undergarments you wear. Most business formal dress codes require pantyhose when wearing a skirt or dress. Layer a camisole under your top if you are worried about any translucency. While not required, foundation garments like Spanx and slips will help your clothes hang properly on your body and also protect delicate garments from perspiration.

Tailor It

Tailoring and making alterations is an important and often overlooked factor of dressing yourself. Your garments should be fit to your body. Find a tailor to hem your pants, skirts and sleeves if necessary. A tailor can also nip and tuck your suits, dresses and tops to give you the best possible fit. Ask someone whose style you admire about their tailor and they will point you in the right direction.

Sensible Shoes

  • Closed-toe black leather heels
  • Closed-toe heels in navy, brown, gray
  • Sleek black flats

Every good business woman needs a great pair of business shoes. Look for basic closed toed styles with a heel height between 2 to 4 inches.  Anything higher is considered inappropriate. Black is the safest color option, though some offices may allow navy, brown or gray shoes. You may also want to have a nice pair of flats to wear on days you’ll be standing for long periods of time. However, always switch back to your heels for meetings and presentations. (It doesn’t hurt that the extra height gives you an air of authority and presence.) Your shoes should always be clean and not too scuffed.

Appropriate Accessories

You can polish off your professional look with some understated accessories. Keep it simple during the day: opt for no more than a wrist watch to tell the time, one ring, a very basic necklace, and a pair of stud earrings if you like. Stick with natural metals and stones in moderate proportions and basic styles. As the very classy Coco Chanel once said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one accessory off.” She says this to ensure your accessories do not get the better of you. Accessories should enhance your ensemble, not be the focal point of it.

Jewelry (optional)

  • Simple necklace
  • Stud Earrings
  • Wrist Watch

Jewelry should be sophisticated and simple. Avoid wearing multiple bracelets because they tend to make too much noise, which can be distracting.

Scarves (optional)

  • Pashmina
  • Silk Neckerchief

A scarf is another useful accessory because it will have you prepared for anything. Having a pashmina or silk scarf around will help while you’re commuting to office on frigid days or in those overly air conditioned corners.


  • Patent leather belt

A belt is used to streamline the silhouette. Look for belts in dark solid colors that will coordinate with your wardrobe. Anything with studs, rhinestones or other embellishments is not appropriate. In general, if your pants, skirt or dress has belt loops, you need to wear a belt with it.


  • Carry All Satchel
  • Elegant Tote bag
  • Briefcase
  • Clutch

In selecting a handbag, keep in mind both form and function. You want a bag that holds your devices, a laptop (if necessary), paperwork, memos and your personal essentials. Having a clutch can be convenient for after-work cocktail events or stepping out for lunch. Some prefer a briefcase over a purse for maximum organization. Your bag should be polished and not overly ornate or embellished. Feel out your office and wear the carryall that suits you best.

The goal of the business formal dress code is that your outfit never distracts from your work and your professionalism. Keep your ensembles sophisticated and pulled-together. One benefit of so strict a dress code is that it eliminates the time and stress of having to put together a unique outfit. Not to mention, wearing a great suit will make you feel confident and professional. If you’re ever unsure of an item, ask your Human Resources person. Because some companies differ on their interpretation of business formal, it’s good to err on the side of conservative for the first few weeks until your see what other women in your office are wearing.