It occurred to me that a little advice to students on ‘dress code’ would be timely, with the early arrival on campus of employers keen to begin recruiting and my recent and bemused reading of an article on the ‘dress code’ that Swiss banking giant UBS recently issued to its employees. The 40-page document covers the ‘dress requirements’ for all their public-facing employees from head to toe; hairstyle, the type of socks, the style of skirt, and the colour of underwear. You may be surprised to know that most employers do actually have a dress code for their employees. This may be enshrined in stone, enforced by peer pressure or just followed intuitively.

So, if you are a student or recent graduate applying for a role in a corporate environment how do you know what’s expected with the often conflicting messages and terminology out there? The truth is that it’s difficult but this will help.

Dress codes are a set of rules governing what garments may be worn together and for what occasions. Examples of dress code shorthand are business-formal’ or ‘business-casual’, orsmart casualor ‘tidy-dress’. All are terms you’ll hear during graduate recruitment. The strictest dress codes apply to men. Women are allowed a lot more lea-way.

For men there are ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ dress codes. Formal dress codes have remained largely unchanged for over a century. At the higher end of ‘formal’, codes dictate standards of dress for men at occasions such as diplomatic receptions and the Oscars. The lower end of  formal roughly equates to the ‘very smart business-formal’ dress worn by senior management in the corporate world – and we’re talking about bespoke tailoring of the suit, well tailored shirts and expensive accessories (ties, socks, shoes, belts) and strict adherence to prescribed colours, fabrics and styles.

Anything below this is ‘casual-dress’…which is very confusing. Casual covers a whole spectrum including ‘business-smart’ which describes the dress code for those in middle management or aspiring to it. For men, a suit, the main components of which are good quality trousers with a matching jacket. The suit is typically dark-coloured (with or without a subtle pattern), grey, dark blue, brown, or black. The suit is worn with a long-sleeved shirt and a tie. For women it’s clothing that ‘imitates the male business suit’: jacket and matching skirt, worn with a plain blouse and discreet accessories. The plain blouse, like the male equivalent, is long sleeved and worn tucked into the skirt or trousers.

‘Business-casual’ is a level below and the total effect must be ‘co-ordinated’.  It can consist of a suit or sport jacket and/or sweater, dress trousers and an optional tie; a more relaxed look but still clearly conveying the message, ‘business professional’.  A level below this is ‘smart-casual’ and the dress codes for both men and women here can change very quickly.  Typically dress trousers, a long-sleeved dress shirt (tie optional) and smart accessories.  Designer denims may be acceptable. For women, it consists of trousers or skirts a blouse or sweater, a fashionable belt, a jacket, vest, coordinated to the outfit, and smart, classic footwear. A smart dress well accessorised is also acceptable.

‘Dressy- or chic-casual’ consists of an outfit suitable for lunch or dinner at a smart restaurant or an off-site seminar. Dress trousers, sport shirt or dress shirt, a sweater or sport jacket and good smart accessories. 

Remember – If your budget doesn’t stretch to even the beginnings of a corporate wardrobe, employers will understand this but here are a few tricks to look as corporate as possible. Wear dark, solid colours and choose clothing made from smooth materials. Light colours, patterns and texture look more casual. Men should wear a collared shirt with a tie or– a jacket too if you can afford it, but this isn’t essential. All clothing and accessories, including shoes should look clean and well cared for. Consider borrowing clothing from friends or sourcing second hand clothing from your local charity shop or ‘Dress for Success’. If you need financial assistance to purchase an outfit, help may be available.  Ask careers staff for advice.  Finally, don’t forget that good personal hygiene – skin, hair, teeth, breath all come free and can make – or break – a deal.

Part 2 of this blog is coming shortly – Dress Code Hints Part 2 – FAQ’s on Dress Code for Graduate Recruitment Presentations and Interviews.

Read more on dress codes at:

answers.com – business-casual

vancouversun.com -UBS dress code for bankers a big hit online

askandyaboutclothes.com – cracking the dress code

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Advice, Career expos