What is appropriate formal business attire for women?

Written by misty witenberg
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What is appropriate formal business attire for women?
Dark shift dresses can sometimes be appropriate for business formal events. (female in suit looking up image by David Winwood from Fotolia.com)

Business dress etiquette can deeply influence the way you and your company are viewed. Unfair as it may be, others take from it your level of professionalism, intelligence, sophistication and credibility. When dressing for a business formal event, decide which level of attire will be most appropriate for the rest of the audience and surroundings. If you are a guest speaker or guest of honour, consider dressing one degree of formality over the audience.

What Is Business Formal Dress?

Business formal is the dressiest of business attire, just a step down from social black-tie dress. For women it means dark, tailored skirt suits. In some cases, a grey or black shift dress paired with a blazer may also be appropriate. The jacket should always be well-tailored and to a slimmer fit than traditional office blazers, and the hemline of the skirt should never come more than 2 inches above the knee. Choose pieces that will not ride up or bind so that you won't be fussing with your dress for an entire event.


Choose black or navy hosiery with a coordinating dark-hued heeled pump. The shoe should be closed-toe, unscuffed and without embellishments such as buckles or bows. A strand of pearls or otherwise understated and ladylike piece of jewellery may be acceptable, but steer clear from anything flashy or that makes noise when you move. Finish the look with a dark wallet clutch or small shoulder bag.

General Business vs. Business Formal

For everyday business wear, women can wear dressy separates, conservative dresses and suits (both skirt and pant) in any colour. Business formal should be devoid of any bright colours, trendy shapes and even conservative prints such as pin stripes.

Social Formal vs. Business Formal

Social formal may include evening gowns and even cocktail dresses of any colour or embellishment, and it is often the point to get noticed. Business formal should not be flashy or statement-making in any way.

When to Wear It

An invitation will normally dictate business formal specifically as a dress code. It may be used for award dinners, political events or work conferences. The atmosphere may be of a social or celebratory nature but still with an air of professionalism or seriousness.

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