There are four levels of business dress.
1: Formal Business
3: Business Casual
4: Casual Business
As a matter of strategy, I recommend that you choose the highest level of business dress appropriate for your business and clientele. You generally cannot make a mistake by dressing a level or two above the style of your clientele, but you certainly can sabotage your success by dressing a level or two below your clientele.
Here’s a brief summary of the business dress levels.
1. Formal Business. This look is appropriate for absolute power, authority, credibility and elegance. The suit is dark, cold and neutral, and worn with a white shirt.
2. Business. This look is appropriate for a business environment where creativity or individuality is desired. There is flexibility in styles, colours, and patterns of the suit, shirt, and tie.
3. Business Casual. This look may work for a sporty environment. A jacket is still worn, but it’s not part of a matched suit. Shoes are more casual – a loafer or walking shoe.
4. Casual Business. This is an extremely casual look for business. It is ‘sans jacket’ – just a shirt and trousers.
At any level, the more your use from Level One, the higher your image. Below are guidelines of what is acceptable in business dress for a more powerful look.
A sharp-looking suit or jacket is the easiest and most effective way to portray power and authority. The most formal suit is dark, cold and neutral – which means navy blue or charcoal.
The suit should be made of fine wool; I usually look for wool that’s rated at least ‘Super 100’. (The number indicates the number of fibres per inch.) Invest in the best quality suit you can afford and that is practical for your business.
The most formal suit is solid in color, but a pinstripe pattern is also acceptable. The more obvious the pattern, the less professional the image.
A formal business suit is classic and tailored. Lines that are straight, sharp, and severe hold the most power.
The higher the contrast between the shirt and the suit, the more professional and formal the effect. A white shirt is the most formal. I suggest choosing a shade that complements your personal colouring, perhaps ice white, soft white, ivory, or cream. The darker the shirt, the less ‘business’ the look.
Choose shirts in fine cotton; any topstitching should be close to the edge, and should have a refined look.
The most formal business dress colours for a tie are variations of gray, blue, gold, and red. The best formal patterns include solid, repeating diagonal lines, foulard (a repeating geometric pattern), and pin-dot.
Pay attention to your tie length! For a conservative image, the tip of your tie would come to the top of your belt buckle. If you require a more creative, progressive image, the tip of your tie could come ¼ inch below your belt buckle.
Use a tie-knot in proportion to your build. If you have a narrow face or a slimmer build, you could use a 4-in-hand. If your face and build is more average, you could use the Half-Windsor. If you have more fullness in your face and build, you could use the Full Windsor. If any of this sounds unfamiliar, check out this web site: www.tie-a-tie.net.
A white linen pocket square is the most formal choice. If you want to show some flair and creativity, you can go with coloured silk. The pocket square should match a colour in the shirt or tie.
The way the pocket square is folded can make a big difference. The most formal folds are “straight,” “triangle,” and “petal.” The ‘puff’ and ‘casual’ are best reserved for less formal or evening situations. Confused? Take a look at www.wikihow.com/Fold-a-Pocket-Square.
Make sure your shoes are immaculate and in good condition. They should be made of leather, and reflect a classic, yet updated, style.
An Oxford (lace-up) shoe sends the most formal message; a loafer is more relaxed. Professional shoes should look refined and elegant rather than rustic and chunky. Black shoes are safest for projecting a formal image.
The belt should match the shoes. A formal belt is made of smooth leather, and features a classic (as in “not distracting”) buckle. If you wear suspenders, a belt is not necessary.
Match your socks to your trousers. It’s not a faux pas to match the shoes, but it’s not the best image. Executive length socks – which cover the calves – ensure we won’t see your hairy leg when you sit and cross your legs.
The jewellery with the strongest professional image is made of gold (yellow or white) or platinum. Jewellery should be moderate in size, classic, and simple. You may wear a watch, up to one ring per hand, a tie clip, and collar pin.
To the extent that jewellery moves away from this look, the more relaxed the look.
If you require a briefcase, the narrower it is, the higher your perceived status. Choose good quality leather.
When you pull out your pen, it must not be an 89-cent plastic ballpoint! The pen doesn’t have to be extremely expensive (although that certainly doesn’t hurt), but it should look elegant. Metal has a higher image than plastic.
Wire frames are professional-looking, whereas plastic frames tend to look sporty or casual. Use non-reflective and non-tinted lenses. Make sure your eyewear is updated, and gives you the competitive edge in terms of appearance. The eyewear you choose can make you look outdated and passé … or credible and savvy.
Formal hair styles are sleek and controlled. Hair that touches the shoulder projects a more casual image. Go to a reputable hair stylist on a regular basis; you want your hair style to be current and flattering. Of course, your hair should be neat, clean and in good condition.
It’s generally best if you’re clean-shaven, as facial hair can sabotage you. If there is obvious hair in places that could be distracting – such as the nose and ears – this should be clipped. I sometimes see men who have a beautiful short haircut, but who also have tufts of hair climbing up out of the back of the shirt and onto the neck. Ugh.
Having a manicure every week or two can keep your nails attractive and in good condition. (A pedicure once a month is also a good idea.) You don’t want hangnails, broken nails, or ragged cuticles.
A nice white smile says ‘success.’ A consultation with a cosmetic dentist can help you decide whether there is work to be done.
Cleaning your teeth on a regular basis helps keep your teeth healthy and your breath fresh. Here are my top three tips to assist with fresh breath:
- Drink water with lemon – the lemon helps kill bacteria.
- Eat dark green leafy food, such as parsley.
- Use an oral breath strip.
Grooming and Hygiene
Shower and use a deodorant. Avoid fragrance in business, as it can be distracting, unprofessional, and inconsiderate. Many people are allergic to fragrance.
“Nothing succeeds like the appearance of success.” — Richard Feynman
Karen Brunger is a Certified Image Professional and President of International Image Institute Inc.