Office dress code: what you need to know

The working world is stressful enough without the added pressure of worrying over what to wear. It doesn't help matters that businesses rely on confusing corporate jargon such as "business casual" to describe their dress code. As much as they think this answers your question perfectly, it's far more likely to lead to clothes-related panic and confusion.

Getting your outfit right is essential. After all, it takes just five seconds for your employer to form a first impression of you. Turn up wearing the wrong thing and you'll be fighting an uphill battle in your bid to impress.

Fortunately, we're here to channel our inner Trinny & Susannah and help you figure out once and for all what not to wear. Now there's a sentence we never expected to write!

Follow their lead

Unsure what to wear even after being informed of a dress code? The simplest way to avoid any clothing mishaps is to contact the HR department and ask for clarification. If they continue to be vague, ask for a specific example of what would be deemed appropriate. It's not worth suffering in silence.

When you go for an interview, make a note of how your interviewers and other people in the office are dressed. This should give you a few ideas for your own outfits if you're fortunate enough to get the job or internship. That said, avoid completely copying how somebody else dresses; the sight of two identically dressed workers will have you standing out for all the wrong reasons.

If, as can be the case with more relaxed work environments, you're still a bit unsure how to dress ahead of your first day in the office then it's a good idea to dress up rather than dress down. A slightly over-dressed person doesn't turn nearly as many heads as someone who's under-dressed compared to everyone else, plus a smart outfit can quickly be relaxed (usually just by ditching your jacket or tie), whereas it's practically impossible to smarten up a casual outfit.

Check the weather

In a country with weather as unpredictable as ours, it pays to keep one eye on the forecast. In the middle of a heatwave? Might be wise to ditch the wool suit and go for something a bit lighter.

Make an effort to invest in a variety of clothes which will work at different times of the year and in different conditions. Guys, have a light linen-cotton suit for hot days as well as a polyester or wool one for the winter. Women can vary between high-necked sleeveless tops in the heat to smart jumpers and shirts when it's cooler.

Ensuring your wardrobe isn't lacking in options means you'll be able to relax and feel comfortable no matter what the weather is, as well as ensuring you're not wearing the same clothes five days a week should you get the job!

"Dress down Fridays"

When you are working or on a placement, you might be informed your workplace has a casual dress code for Fridays. The idea originated in the US during the dot-com bubble and while it offers a chance to be a bit more relaxed in what you wear, judging how much you can relax is tricky.

Dressing down doesn't mean the dress code rules are thrown out the window, so whatever you wear still needs to look smart. Firms with a stricter dress code will probably define dressing down as not needing a jacket and tie, while more relaxed workplaces might take a more business-casual approach. If it's your first Friday on the job, find out from co-workers what they normally wear and remember it's better to be over-dressed than under-dressed!

Don't you dare...

Even on a Friday, there are some items of clothing that will never belong in the workplace. Hopefully the reasons for most of these are fairly obvious and nobody reading this would ever seriously consider wearing flip-flops to work. Only Abercrombie models wear flip-flops to work. While we're on footwear, leave the white trainers and open-toed shoes at home too.

Other big no-no's include cargo trousers, t-shirts with "funny" slogans, beach shorts, fleeces, sportswear and low-cut tops (that last one goes for men as well as women!). Again, the reasons are hopefully fairly obvious. If any of these items being banned from the workplace seems confusing, working in the City might not be the career path for you.

A more perplexing question is raised by the idea of wearing jeans. While a pair of jeans might seem like a good fit for a business casual workplace, it's wise to proceed with caution as some workplaces might deem them too casual. Should jeans be permitted, darker colours such as indigo are best. Remember you still need to look professional, so any pair of jeans you wear has to have a smart fit: leave your baggy, ripped ones at home.

What should I wear?

There are three main types of dress code you can probably expect to encounter. Knowing what these terms mean is vital to ensuring you don't stick out like a sore thumb.

Business professional

In a nutshell: Suit up! A conservative style as worn by the vast majority of City workers

Men: Dark-coloured (navy/grey) suit, white shirt, tie, black belt and smart black leather shoes (with laces).

Women: Suit with trousers or skirt (make sure the hem is below the knee), shirt or smart plain top, modest heels, modest jewellery.

Business formal

In s nutshell: Usually reserved for formal occasions, evening events, award ceremonies and so on. A dressier version of the business professional outfit.

Men: Dark-coloured suit (not cotton), white dress shirt, silk tie (modestly coloured), cufflinks, pocket square, smart black leather shoes (with laces).

Women: Suit with trousers or skirt (make sure the hem is below the knee), shirt or smart plain top , tights, closed-toe shoes preferably with a heel, modest jewellery.

Business casual

In a nutshell: There's no widely accepted definition for business casual so check what your employer expects. Usually, it means you don't need to wear a suit but it's worth having one close to hand at work in case an important meeting crops up.

Men: Shirt or polo shirt, chinos, smart leather shoes (brown/black).

Women: Collared shirt or smart plain top, trousers or skirt (hem below the knee), smart shoes, modest jewellery.

We asked two well-dressed City insiders for some sartorial advice

Britt Lintner

Managing Director at leading hedge fund GLG Partners, and the founder and director of her own fashion label for professional women

  1. Good clothes open doors and first impressions count! Spend more on quality.

  2. Watch the heel height - you don't want to look like a hussy! And no open-toed shoes in the office, not even on a hot summer day.

  3. Be comfortable and wrinkle-free. Look for garments where the fabric has 2-5 per cent of lycra or elastane in its makeup.

  4. Stick to solids. Prints are less timeless.

  5. Wear dresses - they're practical and eye-catching.

Alex Buchanan

Co-head of Alternative Capital at Mirabaud & Cie and the author of The Game: How the World of Finance Really Works

  1. Wear a tie - these are hard times and you need to look professional. Suits without ties are for dinner parties, not the office.

  2. Don't wear a shirt with a pocket.

  3. Don't wear a shirt with your initials on the cuff or the chest. Only do so if you have legitimate claim to a European throne/title.

  4. Look clean - polish your shoes, cut your hair and have a shave. You're not working for a record store.

  5. Don't be garish - you're not at London Fashion Week. Suits should be blue or grey, and shirts should not be purple, green, orange, brown or any other poster paint colour.

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