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Putting the "Pro" in Professional Dress

Whenever I find myself getting ready for a big event, sooner or later I come to that critical question: “What am I going to wear?!”

“Professional dress” and “business casual” are terms that are used relatively commonly, but are not always explained to students who are moving toward their careers.  You probably have a sense of what it means to “look nice,” but executives who have been immersed in corporate culture for years may have very different perspective on what it means to be appropriately well-dressed for work, academic presentations, or other professional events such as dinners, networking events, receptions, interviews, as the like.  Many of the leaders and people in positions of power still ascribe to “old school “values, so shake hands, look everyone in the eye, do not use (or even look at) a cell phone in a meeting or interview, and offer up your best self by dressing to impress.

A Google search can yield information and pictures about what professional and business casual mean, and I encourage you to consult a few resources to get a sense of the range of opinions and options.  To summarize: professional dress code for men means wearing a suit or dress slacks and sport coat with collared shirt and tie, and dress socks with shoes other than sneakers. For women, professional dress also means a suit (pants or skirt suits are acceptable), or a business dress with sleeves, or skirt with business blouse tucked in, always with stockings or tights.  Business clothes on women show very little skin (including the chest, back, arms, and legs), so anything that hints at your midriff is obviously out, along with open back blouses and open-toed shoes!  Skirts should not go more than 1” above your knee, even when sitting. Colors for both genders are better muted than too loud.

Many people do not know that standards for business attire evolved from military dress.  Because the basics of military dress—and hence professional apparel—were designed for men, women face a unique challenge when trying to meet criteria of a professional look.  General rules include being careful with bright colors and limiting or eliminating loud or fun jewelry.  The color issue is becoming more relevant for men, whose clothing options, even in the professional realm, are becoming more and more stylish. Outfits or articles of clothing that are good for weddings, going out dancing or other fun formal events is usually inappropriate for the office, interview, conference or professional presentation. Think: wanting to impress your partner’s grandmother rather than your partner.

Compared to “professional” dress, “business casual” dress code may seem like a dress-down day.  But take it from me that business casual is more dangerous precisely because it is less rigid.  No code is more deeply ingrained than an unwritten code, and it will definitely be noticed if your blouse crosses boundaries or breaks with unspoken expectations of your office or professional community.  Business casual offers some flexibility with choices between pants, skirts, or dresses.  There is more infusion of options in terms of blouses or scarves or blazers, but remember the golden rule that less is more: one bold statement item is usually fine, but don’t wear all your flashiest gear at once and do NOT show skin to make a statement.  (We want them to focus on your function not your form!)

In some office cultures, for example, sleeveless is acceptable, but in others it is seen as unprofessional.  (Google: Michelle Obama’s arms to get a sense of what this means.) Women also have ability to personalize and add variety with jewelry and shoes, but open-toed is still out of the question.  For men, business casual may be less clear, but means at least nice slacks (never jeans or exercise pants), a collared shirt, and conservative shoes that do not show the toes.  For both genders, clothing should be clean, pressed, and in good condition without holes or fraying.  Keep an eye on those around you and base your style off what other successful folks do well.

Some preliminary web-based research will reveal that people care deeply about questions of presentation and go to great lengths to specify what is appropriate for various professional settings.  Many organizations have dress codes posted online or handed out at employee orientation.  When it comes to presenting yourself in any remotely professional context, extreme makeup, hoodies and short skirts are among the most common enemies.  Remember, you only get once chance to make a first impression, so if you have doubts, go for a style that is more PROfessional. And remember, the Kearns Center staff is here to help you make those decisions.  When in doubt, snap some photos and email us, or bring the photos with you when you come to the office. We’ve also been known to tag along on shopping runs for particularly important events.


Elizabeth (Liz) Daniele