Business dress code - photo courtesy of Penny MathewsWhether you’re at a job interview, attending a networking event or giving a speech, it’s important that you dress appropriately. I’ve seen fashion faux pas in business situations that have actually shocked me: from the person that I interviewed who was dressed more casually than me to person at a networking event who was dressed like he was meeting Cinderella at the grand ball.

Appropriate dress is always in the eyes of the beholder and inappropriate dress can often cause negative perceptions about you before you even open your mouth. Three’s no hard and fast rule such as all job interviews require formal dress or all networking events require business dress as I’ve seen several situations where events that traditionally require formal dress requested casual dress and vice versa.

To attempt to make sense of this potentially tricky situation, we’ll define the various states of dress and then look at what some events traditionally require for dress codes. So let’s start by defining the various business dress codes.


This is the most formal dress code and reserved for special events. Awards banquets, inauguration balls and some weddings will require black tie dress.

  • For men, this means a tuxedo with the appropriate accessories or a black suit with a black tie.
  • For women, this means an evening gown.

Formal / Business Formal:

Formal and business formal are essentially the same thing. These are common with business networking events and most weddings.

  • For men: a suit or dress pants with a blazer is required. A tie is highly recommended as it can always come off if the event is more casual.
  • For women: A dress is okay for social events, but a suit (either with pants or a skirt) is best for business events. Save the low cut blouses, short dresses and skirts and flattering dress for social events and dress more conservatively at business events.

Business Casual:

Business casual is often appropriate for conferences, trade shows, class reunions and some family events such a graduation held in a hall or function room.

  • For men: A collared shirt (preferably one with at least a few buttons) or sweater and a pair of dress pants or khakis are appropriate. Sweat pants, sweatshirts, jeans, shorts, sneakers and sandals are all inappropriate for these events.
  • For women: Non-denim pants, shirts and skirts are the way to go. Avoid mini-skirts, beach sandals and sneakers.


Some events are deemed casual which means that you can wear whatever you want. These events can include weddings, networking socials and even speaking engagements. In general, clean and neat are the only guidelines you need to follow. I would avoid ripped or stained clothing and only wear something considered beachwear if the event is pool party or at the beach.

In the event of a speaking engagements and networking socials, a more professional appearance is important.

  • For men: A collared shirt with khaki shorts and either clean sneakers (canvas tend to be dressier but athletic shoes are fine as well) or shoes. I personally would avoid sandals, flip flops, bathing trunks, tank tops and t-shirts (unless it’s a dressy t-shirt) for casual events related to business.
  • For women: Shorts with a matching shirt, skirts and weather appropriate shoes work fine. Avoid bathing suits, clothing that reveals undergarments (even if that undergarment is a swim suit) and plastic or rubber flip flops. Sunglasses and hats are fine, but remove them if you’re giving a speech.

In the event that the invitation doesn’t state the dress code, ask. Call the person that invited you or is organizing the event to find out what they feel is appropriate dress.

Sometimes you can’t get in touch with the right person so you have to guess what the appropriate dress is. Here are some guidelines to help you figure it out:

  • Formal events where the invitation is in black and white often indicate a black-tie event.
  • Weddings are typically formal as are funerals and wakes. The exceptions are weddings on the beach which are casual, but follow the guidelines for business related casual events.
  • Class reunions depend on the venue and who’s invited. Outdoor events where the whole family is invited are typically casual where sit down dinners are formal. Most of these events are either business formal or business casual so if possible, dress business formal but allow room to dress business casual if that’s how others are dressed. For men, this would mean losing the jacket and tie and for women, using accessories that move an outfit into either category.
  • Cocktail parties are typically business casual as are dinner parties.
  • Conferences and tradeshows are typically business casual but certain industries (such as finance) may be business formal where others may be casual. Check with an industry insider to find out what’s appropriate.
  • Family events that have religious significance are typically business casual for the party. If the event is held in a house of worship, business formal is appropriate.
  • Job interviews are typically business formal unless the person setting up the event tells you otherwise. Speaking engagements have the same general rule.

In general, you’re better off being overdressed than underdressed — the only exception would be showing up to a pool party wearing pants and a long sleeved shirt.

You may want to bookmark this article for future reference.

Dressing for Success
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