By Zac Meyer
Updated: September 17, 2021
“Was it business professional or business casual? Perhaps small business casual?” I thought to myself as I nervously stared at my laptop screen awaiting my interview.
When I was having an interview with my current employer, I had no idea what to wear. In many professional settings and especially in the legal world, the typical and expected dress code is business professional. But what does that mean?
Unfortunately, the words that comprise the phrase do not define what it means. The word business is ambiguous and as case-specific as the countless businesses that exist. I have seen business men and women wear anything from the most formal attire to looking like they just came out of the clearance rack in Target (and yes, I am quite familiar with what clothes they have there, and I love them). The word professional doesn’t help us much either; when I think of professional, my mind takes me to sports, and I am pretty sure my potential employer does not want me to show up to my interview wearing my favorite NBA player’s game outfit.
(This is probably not how we want to look our first time in the office or at our first law school event.)
Business professional is more formal than the modern, young khaki and floral style and infinitely more formal than the relaxed work-at-home because of COVID style. What is the appropriate attire for men and women?
For men, it includes suits, button-down shirts, ties, and dress shoes. Women, on the other hand, wear appropriate skirts or slacks with accompanying button-down shirts or blouses with a blazer; another option is smart-business dresses. Women also tend to wear moderate heels or flats for footwear. Jewelry can be worn but should not be too flashy or over the top.
The purpose of business professional is to look dignified and create a professional visual image without drawing too much attention to yourself because of what you are wearing. So choose dark, conservative colors and avoid clothes that are unprofessional in any way (ripped, too-skinny, or frayed). Most clothing should fit appropriately and can be tailored to fit, if necessary.
Sadly, this might require many to expand their wardrobe, which typically means spending loads of money. Young business professionals make a fraction of the money experienced business professionals make, so how can you afford such a wardrobe?
The beautiful part of business professional attire is that one main outfit goes a long way. Men should focus on having one suit and switch out ties (which are much more affordable) to reduce redundancy. A couple of skirts and tops that can mix and match, a pantsuit, or a couple dresses is the ideal for women.
If you need to purchase some of these clothing items, don’t be afraid to be thrifty. Check a lot of stores and monitor sales online and in stores (Kohl’s and TJ Maxx are great options). Find a local consignment store and see what business professional clothing they have. These options will help you save money without it being a cost to your appearance.
Whether you are in your first year of law school or are beginning a career that requires business professional attire, try to gauge the environment you will be working in before overspending. Observe and see what the more experienced and seasoned veterans wear. While business professional dress can be generally defined, subcategories certainly exist under it within different organizations and entities. So at your first meeting or event, dress business professional the best you can, but keep your eyes open so you can adjust to meet the prevailing standards within the community.
Before I had my interview, I called and asked someone working there what the appropriate dress code was. It helped me not look too casual by underdressing nor too pretentious by overdressing. That’s what it is all about, dressing to fit the situation; and now, that is exactly what you are ready to do.