This guide is designed to help you determine standard work attire for your industry of choice. There are seven levels of dress that range from ultra casual to business formal. In determining what to wear to an interview, note the industry norms indicated below. Once you have identified the standard level of attire for a normal day at the office, you should dress “up one level” for an interview or career fair.
*Special thanks to our colleagues in Duke International Student Center, CSGD, The Mary Lou, CMA, Jewish Life@Duke, Muslim Life@Duke and The Graduate School who helped support this effort.
Industry NormsThere are different expectations depending on the formality and industry that you are working in. To determine workplace norms, do your research. Review the company website, explore social media pages, and speak with current employees to gauge company culture. This may vary based on job title or location as well. For instance, bow ties might be appropriate for attorneys in the South but not for investment bankers in New York City. Seek your mentors’ advice about industry expectations and cultural differences.
A polished look starts with confidence in the clothes you choose. Consider the colors that fit best for your field. If you are in a more conservative industry, subdued colors may be best, while in a creative field you may wear more colorful attire. Selecting a cut of fabric that suits your body shape will ensure that you are choosing flattering silhouettes that show your body’s proportions without clinging. It is common to need different sizes for a blazer than you would for pants/skirts/dresses. Instead of purchasing a full suit, look for stores that offer several cuts from one brand in the same fabric and color so you can pick what style looks and feels best for you.
Generally, do not wear oversized items or clothing that is too tight. Make sure that the neckline is not too low. Hemlines should not be above the top of your kneecap and be sure to test how the fabric moves when you sit. Prints or patterns may be distracting, and are generally not found in traditional business attire and business formal attire. Finally, consider the fabric you are wearing, being mindful of the climate, the season, and the drape of the material on your body. Heavier fabrics such as wool are commonly found in materials for suits, and can provide a smart look, but switching to lighter weight fabrics in hotter climates is wise. The focus of any stakeholder, whether it is your supervisor, colleague, client, or community member, should primarily be on the work outcomes you offer, and less on your clothing.
In meetings with employers, your skills and contributions should be the most memorable aspect of your presence. Keep your hair tidy and consider industry and cultural standards when choosing a style for an interview. Nails should be unpainted or painted a natural color and makeup should look natural and clean. Too much color can be distracting.
In conservative fields and workplaces, tattoos should be covered, whether with clothing, shoes, or make up. You should only have one piercing in each ear. Any other type of piercing should be covered or removed. Think from an employer’s point of view prior to altering your appearance and consider whether it may limit the environment in which you can work for the rest of your career. For more informal industries, it’s advisable to speak with current employees about the culture around piercings and tattoos.
Avoid wearing scented lotions, colognes, and perfumes. A combination product of anti-perspirant/deodorant should be used, but it should be a subtle scent or unscented.
If your employer is located in an at-will state, you can be fired or not hired for personal grooming and appearance. Employers can legally have an expected appearance policy for grooming, as long as laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are not violated. The EEOC prohibits discrimination in dress codes on the basis of religion, national origin, race, and disability.
Shopping on a BudgetInterview attire can be expensive, so it’s best to invest in basics. These include shoes, a blazer, and possibly a work bag. These items are less susceptible to fashion trends and weight fluctuations than pants or shirts. There are several places where you can get professional attire for less than retail prices. Local Durham options include Pennies for Change, Dress for Success, and several local thrift shops. Think in advance and look for sales. Buy pieces that are versatile and that can be worn with various tops and bottoms. Also, the Career Center offers a one-time stipend of $250 for purchasing interview attire. See more information about the Professional Development Fund here.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers with at least 15 employees from discriminating in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Protected religious observances or practices include attending worship services, praying, wearing religious garb or symbols, displaying religious objects, or refraining from certain activities. This law also extends to those who are discriminated against because they profess no religious beliefs. For example, an employer that is not a religious organization (as legally defined under Title VII) cannot make employees wear religious garb or articles (such as a cross) if they object on grounds of non-belief. For additional information, see the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s recommendations. Religious expression and practice is diverse. If you feel these recommendations are not helpful, or if your particular religious expression is not addressed/considered, please contact your career center or a cultural/identity/religious center at Duke for more information.
Trans and Nonbinary Individuals
Choosing attire in a professional setting can be particularly challenging for queer and trans job seekers. While it’s ultimately a personal decision, you should consider the environment and trends of a particular employer and industry. Review the company’s non-discrimination policy, if they have one. Review their standing in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. You can also look for affinity groups within companies or organizations, either for additional information or a contact of someone who can assist with better understanding the norms and expectations of that particular organization.
You may choose to dress in clothing typically associated with the gender with which you identify, particularly if the organization has demonstrated an inclusive environment. If you are interviewing with a conservative organization, you may choose to wear gender conforming attire. Gender-neutral or androgynous clothing may make you feel most confident, which is crucial in any interview setting. Just as the decision to come out on a resume or in an interview is a personal one, you can determine your comfort level after learning about the particular employer or field.
While 21 states have passed legislation to protect gender identity, it’s important to stay aware of changing laws. Columbia University has several resources for LGBTQIAA+ individuals regarding job search and interview preparation. To ensure that you meet an organization’s standards, review company policy, read federal and state law, and ask for guidance to understand dress codes and grooming expectations.
Levels of Dress: Ultra Casual
- T-shirt or blouse
- Collared or hooded sweater
- Jeans or comfortable pants
- Comfortable footwear
- Accessories optional
- Commonly Found
- Tech firms
- “Youthful” workplaces
- Clothing should not have holes or tears and some companies may not allow graphics on shirts
- Clothing should not be sheer or see-through, unless wearing a tank or camisole underneath
- Hats, shorts, leggings and open-toed shoes are often acceptable, but be sure to observe this from several other people at your rank before wearing it yourself
Level of Dress: Baseline Casual
- Collared shirts, fitted blouses
- Dark, fitted jeans
- Sundresses or skirts
- Flat, non-athletic shoes
- Metal or leather watch; modest jewelry
- Commonly Found
- Casual offices or casual Fridays
- Entry-level employees
- Industry conferences
- Casual dress still requires grooming and effort; clothing should be wrinkle-free
- Most hats are unacceptable indoors
- Open toe shoes are acceptable for female-identified individuals
Level of Dress: Business Casual
- Button-down or polo shirt, fitted blouses
- Blazer, sport coat, or sweater
- Slacks or corduroy dress pants, knee-length skirts or dresses
- Flats, sling-backs, or boots; relaxed but elegant shoes
- Metal or fine leather watch; simple jewelry
- Commonly Found
- Most established businesses
- Employer-sponsored events
- Internal and/or client-facing meetings
- Often uses solid, neutral colors and simple patterns
- Some industries/companies will allow dark denim for business casual attire
Level of Dress: Creative Casual
- Sport coats and jackets
- Brightly colored or patterned shirts and ties
- Fine fabrics, fashionable silhouettes
- Dressy slacks, possibly denim (well-tailored dark wash, black, or crisp white are the safest)
- Loafers, slides, mules
- Classic handbag or shoulder bag
- Bigger and unique jewelry and accessories
- Commonly Found
- Creative firms, arts and entertainment
- Publishing and editing
- PR and communications
- This is one of the only times when it’s acceptable to wear dress shoes or loafers without socks
- Allows for creativity with color and print but still keeps an air of professionalism
Level of Dress: Traditional Business Attire
- Shirt and tie; blouses or professional tops
- Dark and subtly patterned suits, may be pant, skirt, or dress
- Closed-toe shoes, polished if appropriate; shoes and belt should match
- Minimal jewelry
- Commonly Found
- Employer information sessions for positions in these fields
- Subtle patterns and colors are acceptable for ties
- Patterned socks are your opportunity to make a statement
Level of Dress: Business Formal/Boardroom Attire
- Dark charcoal gray or navy blue suit, stockings if appropriate
- Crisp white dress shirts and modest ties; collared dress shirts or blouses
- Black oxfords or derbys; black closed-toe low or high heels (not above 4″)
- High quality accessories
- Commonly Found
- Fortune 500 companies
- Executives, senior-level management
- Board meetings
- Tailoring can make an ill-fitting suit look custom-made
- Pocket squares and cufflinks are optional