Dressing today in business, I believe, has become more difficult as dress codes seem to be getting less prescriptive. There are new terms to contend with, not just “smart casual”, but “dress down” and “business casual”.  As we are creating new terms, we are in new territory and it seems these terms mean different things to us all!

We all know that we consciously or unconsciously make judgements or decisions based on appearance, so it is still important to dress appropriately for work. But what is appropriate? At the end of this blog I give some examples to help.

I have cruised in the last couple of years and found a stipulated dress code for a “formal evening” contravened (where someone wanted to enter a dining room in jeans and they were rejected). The cruise information clearly states “when formal nights are held, please comply with the dress code in the Traditional and Anytime dining venues for the enjoyment of all our guests:

  • evening gown, cocktail dress, or elegant pant suit for women;
  • tuxedo, dark suit or dinner jacket and trousers for men.”

We find it helpful to have guidance and clear rules, even if some people then like to bend or interpret them in their own way! Even easier is a uniform, where everyone must look “UNIfied” and “conFORM”. But how many of us hate that? Yes, it doesn’t allow us to express our personalities, so those more daring will stretch the rules and try to make their “straightjacket” of a uniform more comfortable by opening the top shirt button, loosening a tie or wearing a skirt shorter etc.

Even the Brownies had to modernise their uniform a few years ago and allowed trousers as well as skirts, and the material became more modern, comfortable and stretchy too.

Dress codes have been revised to comply with legislation covering religious and sexual issues, which is why they may now appear less prescriptive. So, in terms of dressing for work if there is no uniform, it has definitely become more challenging to know what the expectations are. How do you look professional yet not stand out as an outsider in these more casual times? Tricky! Then, there is the added problem of the lines being blurred between a work and non-work wardrobe, especially if you like to change to feel more relaxed outside of work. And, what would you wear to a work social event?

This is where understanding the language of clothes (especially colours and styles, including patterns and materials) is important. After I had been colour-analysed 25+ years ago I went to work wearing my colours and did not realise the impact I was having in a financial services organisation. Many years later I heard from my then-boss that people in the organisation had assumed I was the boss because I appeared so confident wearing colour! I would not have wanted to upstage my boss (who did usually dress in black and white) but did not realise the impact wearing colours all those years ago had in such an organisation.

I have seen articles that recommend business attire should be more neutral colours (black, navy, brown and grey) and I can see the logic in this. Historically suits have been neutral to appear more business-like as working in an office is not usually about standing out and stamping one’s personality in a business where conformity is required, but there is a definite movement in the 21st Century to be more individual and dress more casually than in the 20th Century.

I would argue that your choice of clothing and how it is worn gives you professionalism. Take, for instance, the Virgin Air crew uniform – quite a bright red, but they ALL look smart and professional. That is because of their grooming: shirts are always tucked in, hair always neat and tidy and shoes clean and un-scuffed. This is all part of their dress code but is more difficult to implement in some industry dress codes. Rules seem difficult to police, unless they can be associated with health and safety.

New recruits are well advised to find out what the expectation or norm is before their first day, and I would advise opting for “smarter” rather than “casual” if they are told the dress code is “smart casual”! These days a matching suit does not seem common business wear, but a jacket rather than a woollen (such as a cardigan) is still classed as more formal, and you can take a jacket off if you feel it is too formal or warm for the situation. If you want to keep the demarcation between work and play, you would need to choose items to wear to work that you would not wear for your hobbies or non-work interests.

Take, for instance, the freelance photographer. You would want to appear professional yet need to be able to move around and be comfortable, to help put your subject at ease. If you were doing a photoshoot outdoors you may dress differently than if it were in a studio setting.

When dressing for work it’s about appearing as if you care, and look like you have made an effort, not just rolled out of bed and dashed to work (even if that is your reality!). For some clothing personalities they may always appear “scruffy” even if they do make an effort (e.g. Boris Johnson). So, getting it right for your clothing personality, your workplace and environment, and showing respect to your customers/clients can be a difficult balancing act these days. This is where someone like me can help get your wardrobe right for your circumstances, both now and in the future. If you are at all unsure, please give me a call to discuss your dilemmas.

Your Colour & Style Consultant
07469 246722


Examples and Guidance on Dressing Appropriately for Work

This is general guidance from Your Colour & Style and is not industry-specific, nor taking into account climate, fashion or age profiles.


  • Darker, neutral-coloured suit (ie matching material for trousers, skirt or shift dress and jacket), in cotton, linen, and fine wool fabrics and in the darkest shade of your season’s black, blue, brown or grey.
  • Plain contrasting shirt, blouse or tee-shirt in white or cream (short or long-sleeved).
  • Optional tie or scarf – colours and patterns not too daring.
  • To smarten the look, add a belt (black, blue, brown or grey to match in with your choice of colour suit) and briefcase or smart handbag.
  • Shoes must be closed and clean/un-scuffed. The heel height can be anything practical or to suit your “clothing personality”. Shoes ideally not too patterned or colourful but a good match with the suit colour.
2018 Business SMART-CASUAL (ie neat but casual)

This is where fabrics, patterns and colours can be more flexible to achieve the relaxed yet professional look. It’s about mixing a jacket with chinos and a crisp open-neck shirt, for example:

  • Blazer, jacket or zip jacket or cardigans
  • Clean/tidy jeans (no rips), chinos, trousers, or coloured leggings with a tunic-style (3/4 length) dress, or coloured trouser suits.
  • Approximate knee-length dresses or skirts.
  • Plain tee-shirts (ie without big motifs) but can have embroidery or stitch details, or knitted tops (not see-through) with or without sleeves.
  • Closed in toe shoes (eg sling-backs are acceptable for women). Not trainers, but “pumps” are acceptable for women. Any height heel.

Anything could come under this heading, but if for business the guidance should be “the less flesh on show the better”.