Business Formal Attire vs. Business Casual Attire

Updated 21 July 2022

Dressing in the correct business attire for your workplace increases your confidences and makes you appear more professional. It's important to take time to curate an appropriate work wardrobe to maximise your personal comfort. When attending a corporate meeting, including a job interview, business attire is an important measure people consider when forming their first impression of you. In this article, we discuss what business attire is, the difference between formal and casual business attire, how to dress yourself according to your company dress code and grooming tips for the workplace.

Related: Job Interview Tips: How to Make a Great Impression

What is business attire?

Business attire refers to the standard dress code in your workplace. These norms highly depend on your professional industry, employer's preferences and country's culture. In Hong Kong, business attire leans on the formal side, especially because the most prevalent local industries are customer-facing in nature, such as banking, finance and trade.

However, as social media and globalisation impacts dressing conventions, organisations are also slowly adopting a more casual approach. For example, creative professionals prefer a more flexible dress code as it's a means of self-expression. To better understand the most suitable business attire in your workplace, examine your co-worker's style and review your employee handbook for detailed guidelines.

Business formal vs business casual

Business formal and business casual describe two distinct categories of common business attire for the workplace. Typically, business casual, also known as smart casual attire, gives you more choices than business formal attire. The following is a more in-depth look at the similarities and differences between business formal and business casual attire:

Tops and bottoms

Business formal attire is a complete look, such as a full suit with a button-down shirt, slacks, tie and blazer. Business casual attire allows you to mix and match tops and bottom to create a look that illustrates your own personal style. Unlike business formal, business casual allows you to incorporate several articles of clothing, such as blouses, jeans and coats.

Related: What Is Business Casual Attire? (With Tips)

Colour and pattern

Simplicity is key to the business formal dress code. It's common for professionals to stick to blue, black, grey and white when choosing an outfit that aligns with business formal attire. As for prints, business formal tends to prefer subtle prints that blend in, rather than stand out.

Business casual attire uses a mixture of colours and patterns to form a unique look. It allows you a range of colour options, however, it's best to stay clear of anything overly bright or neon.

Fit and accessories

Business formal garments tend to have a structured and tailored fit. While business casual is more flexible in terms of fit, you still need to appear sharp and professional. For example, it's best to avoid clothing items that are too tight or revealing entirely.

As for accessories, you can wear ties and scarfs in a business formal dress code, but remember to select minimal prints that don't bring unwanted attention to yourself. When working in a business casual setting, it's more acceptable to include a few statement pieces, such as printed blazers and layered necklaces. Keep in mind though that whatever you wear should show respect for the workplace, therefore, avoid any accessories with loud text and neon colours.

How to dress in business formal

The following is a step-by-step guide detailing how to pick out an outfit that adheres to a business formal dress code:

1. Button-down shirt

The basics of a business formal dress code are your tops and bottoms. You can wear a solid colour shirt or one with a chequered or striped pattern. Select a button-down shirt to avoid blouses that are too loose or too low cut. Opt for a shirt that you will feel comfortable wearing throughout the day, especially in an air-conditioned office environment.

2. Slacks or skirts

Women can wear a well-tailored skirt or pantsuit. Before you buy any skirts, try them out to test their fit and length. Skirts that fall below the knee are appropriate for a workplace setting. Usually, you will find one that matches a blazer, so that it's easier to put together a complete outfit.

For men, full-length slacks that fall towards the top of their dress shoes are an appropriate option for the workplace. Before you wear them, try to get your slacks professionally pressed, so that there is a neat crease down the front of each leg.

3. Smart blazers

A blazer is a core item of closing in business formal attire. It not only makes you appear more credible, but it also is a great way to keep warm in temperature-controlled offices. Find a blazer that matches your bottoms and make sure it's tailored to your individual measurements. While it might be cheaper to purchase a blazer off the rack, a tailored option fits almost perfectly, giving you an extra boost of confidence.

Before you wear your outfit, remember to iron your blazer, pants and shirt, so that you appear professional.

4. Modest shoes

When working in a professional environment, it's best to opt for closed-toe dress shoes. For women, pick out a heel that feels comfortable to walk in. An appropriate height is no higher than two inches from the ground. Pair your outfit with either black, brown or skin-tone shoes. Before you put them on, make sure they're clean and polished.

Men should wear dress shoes that match their suit colour. If your suit is black or grey, pick a black colour shoe. Opt for a brown shoe for all other colours.

How to dress in business casual

Business casual is a fun dress code that allows you to repurpose your wardrobe for work and events outside the workplace. Here are a few tips to help you put together a business casual outfit:

1. The basics

When putting together a business casual outfit, you need to balance creativity with professionalism. The best way to do this is by using the basics in your wardrobe and styling them with statement pieces. The classic smart-casual wardrobe for women includes a variety of dresses, blouses, cardigans, skirts and long trousers. To ensure your basics are appropriate for the workplace, make sure the lengths and cuts you choose are modest and select colours and prints that don't overwhelm your body shape.

Business casual attire for men is also more flexible than business formal. Instead of just shirts, you can include polos and t-shirts, too. As for your pants, you can choose a range of different fabrics, but try to avoid sweatpants and shorts.

2. Statement pieces

To make a casual outfit look smart, shop for a few statement pieces that you can mix and match with the basics in your wardrobe. For example, you can wear a blazer with a striking print over a basic white top and blue jeans. Accessories also make great statement pieces. For men, a pocket square, a vibrant bow tie or a pair of cuff links can energise a casual look. Similarly, for women, pair your outfit with some drop earrings or a simple necklace to appear more trendy.

3. Smart shoes

Instead of just dress shoes, business casual attire permits ankle boots, sneakers and ballet flats. You can also choose between a variety of colours to match your outfit perfectly. Before wearing your shoes to work, make sure they look tidy and avoid anything that appears worn in or feels too uncomfortable. If you have bought yourself a brand new pair of shoes, wear them around the house for a while so that you don't end up with painful shoe bites at work.

Can jeans be business casual attire?

Jeans can be suitable business casual attire, depending on their colour, style and fit. Jeans are both a comfortable and flexible option that allows you to repurpose the basics in your wardrobe for work and other social gatherings. To upscale a casual pair of jeans, wear them with a smart blazer and some statement accessories.

When shopping for a suitable pair of jeans for work, there are a few things to keep in mind. Avoid ripped jeans that are too revealing and unprofessional for the workplace. Opt for a blue or black pair of jeans that has no additional embellishment, such as acid-washed or neon patterns. Stick to jeans that are simple yet smart.

Grooming tips for the workplace

No matter your company's business attire policy, you need to closely follow a set of grooming norms in order to promote a hygienic work environment. Here are a few grooming tips to help you present yourself as a confident professional:

  • Iron your outfit. Check for any unwanted creases in your work outfit the night before to make sure they're ironed out smoothly. Professionals that wear freshly pressed clothing often appear more organised than those that skip this important detail.

  • Keep your hair neat. Store a comb in your workstation drawer for easy access. This way, you can keep your hair tidy throughout the day, especially before you join an important meeting.

  • Style your facial hair. Some companies prefer men to have a clean-shaven look, while others don't have any specific requirements for facial hair. However, if you choose to grow a beard or moustache, visit your local barber regularly to maintain a groomed look.

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