March 16, 2022


Professional Dress Codes: More Like Guidelines Than Actual Rules

By: Leah Nalepa

A great quote from one of my all-time favorite movies, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, comes from the pirate Barbossa when he refers to the pirate Code: “The [code] is more of what you call guidelines than actual rules.” Honestly, I live most of my life by this mantra, especially when it comes to professional dress codes. 

Don’t get too excited – I’m not suggesting that you  wear jeans when a suit is otherwise appropriate or required. My intention behind this is to say that professional dress codes are rarely clearly defined and often leave a lot of room for creativity and originality. Many of us have heard of the terms below. But if asked today, could you define each of them succinctly and point out the differences? If you can’t, you’re not alone.


Outside the workplace, casual includes jeans, graphic tees, tennis shoes, and sun dresses. Your typical streetwear. Recently, many companies have adopted a casual dress code or offer “casual Fridays”. In the professional workplace, casual isn’t exactly the same.  When dressing casually in the workplace, be mindful of wearing t-shirts that are sarcastically offensive or too loud, ripped jeans, open-toed shoes, or showing too much skin (tank/camisole or short dress). Keep the sneakers clean, jeans intact, and top comfortable and modest.  

Smart Casual

Smart casual is where things start to get confusing. Smart casual can usually include jeans or a jean jacket. Typically, jeans are a dark wash and are paired with a button-down shirt or blouse and cardigan, and topped off with nicer shoes like heels or loafers. This is also where trendy streetwear lives: pair a cool sports coat or blazer with trousers or cigarette pants and neutral sneakers. 

Business Casual

Ah, business casual. This is arguably the most ill-defined category, yet most frequently utilized dress code. Personally, I like it the most because it combines attire that is comfortable and creative, but also professional. The most important thing to know about business casual is that jeans are not allowed. This level is one step below business professional, so it’s polished, but allows for color and patterns. 

For men, business casual includes chinos, trousers and khakis, button-down/oxford shirts, and leather or mesh wingtip shoes or loafers. Careful not to pair your nicest dress shoes with this outfit since the shoes will look disjointed with the casual chinos. If you want to elevate this look, throw on a tie or sport coat. 

For women, business casual offers more options. Attire can include chinos, cigarette pants, trousers, skirts and slightly casual dresses (but not sun dresses), blouses and tanks with cardigans, and flats, heels, or boots. Generally, dresses and skirts should not be more than 5 fingers above the knee when standing. Open-toed sandals should not be worn. 

Business Professional 

Most of us are familiar with business professional attire. It includes a classic suit with tie, professional dress like a wrap or sheath dress, blazer or sportcoat, and dress shoes. There are not as many patterns and colors, but they can be incorporated in a professional look, if done appropriately. Where I see the most hiccups in this category is when the items look cheap or they are ill-fitting. This look requires that the item should be polished, pressed, and well-tailored. For this look, it is worth investing in a custom outfit that you can always rely on.

Corporate Professional

Corporate professional is the highest level of professional wear before special events that call for cocktail and black tie attire. It generally includes precise fits, extreme quality, three-piece suits, high level of modesty, and minimal colors, jewelry, and flair. I have heard of someone not passing an interview because her shirt wasn’t high enough quality for the professional setting she was applying for! 

Finally, there is cocktail and black-tie attire. While these are definitely seen in the workplace, they aren’t as frequent, demanding, or confusing as the other professional dress codes. 

So, the next time you speak with your HR team about the office dress code, remember the guidelines we discussed here and dress the part.