If your job requires you to follow a formal dress code, just think about Michelle Obama. "Style helps distinguish you," she says. "It's a great potential opportunity that people tend to leave by the wayside."
According to Obama, style is available at any time, and let's face it, the ex-lawyer has an impressive wardrobe that spans presidential elections and functions that most of us will never have to endure.
But when your attire is determined by the company dress code, what's a non-First Lady to do?
Have no fear; whether you're rising to the top, working in an industry that requires you to dress formally or are getting primed for an interview, there are ways to make your wardrobe work for you.
Follow the hard and fast rules but add a little something of your own and you'll be taken seriously by both men and women in the boardroom.
What is Business Formal Dress Code?
Ok, ladies, when it comes to business formal for women, there are rules.
If you're employed by a legal firm, are in senior management or work in HR you'll be expected to wear your skirt at or below the knees, keep your shoulders covered (no straps), avoid tops that show cleavage, wear pantyhose at all times and preferably don shoes with low-ish heels.
The reason for such a precise code is more to do with minimising distractions than about taking away your personality.
As a lawyer you'll be in and out of courtrooms as well as the office, and for anyone required to attend a board meeting or client presentation it makes sense to be dressed in such a way that your words are what's remembered, not what you were wearing.
So that means no heavy or jingly jewellery, keep things neat and neutral, and as for your hair – it can be up or down but if it's loose it must look clean and tidy.
Dress for Success
"Common rules of formal business wear have been lost a little with the recent trends in businesses being more 'business casual' and relaxing dress codes," says Alex Hattingh, Chief People Offier at Employment Hero.
Despite the trend towards more casual attire, many roles still require women to maintain a fairly conservative standard of dress, but it needn't be at the expense of comfort.
"It is always best to make sure you feel good and are being authentic when you dress and are selecting your outfits. There is nothing worse than being uncomfortable in what you're wearing," says Hattingh.
Style Tip: Keep it simple but feminine with the Percy Belted Dress available at The Iconic.
Wear the Trousers
"When dressing for business formal, it’s important to get the balance just right," says Nicole Adolphe, head of style at The Iconic. "Button-up shirts or blouses paired with a skirt or wide leg pants is always a safe bet, especially if you need to be pulled into a meeting last minute."
Natalie McKenna, Lecturer Strategic Communication at LaTrobe University agrees that trousers are a good idea and can help you look and feel professional.
"One of my recent research projects found that when women use masculine leadership styles and dress more like men e.g. suits and dark colours, those women considered [it] part of their reason for success."
Style Tip: Pair a crisp white shirt with black or blue wide leg pants like these Chain Palazzo Pants available at The Iconic
Set the Meeting Ablaze
"Whilst it’s important to remember that your appearance will affect how people see you in a professional environment it is possible to add your own flair and style," explains Ali Cavill, an HR expert with over 15 years' experience.
You don't always have to wear blazer but you will need at least one or two in your repertoire. "Black, blue, grey and brown are the best colours to convey leadership and professionalism," says Cavill.
When in doubt, she has a one-size-fits-all tip: "Over dressed is definitely better than underdressed."
Style tip: For a professional look, match your Blazer with straight cut pants or a pencil skirt.
It's a good idea to apply the same formal dress code principle for interviews. Formal dress for ladies means generally sticking to dark colours and neutrals but there's no harm in exploring the spectrum of blues and greys. Just beware of anything that's too patterned.
"Adding some colour with your shirt or blouse will give the perception of confidence and set you apart from every other applicant," says Cavill.
Style tip: Different shades of blue are acceptable, like this capped sleeve dress that sits close to the knee.
The Finishing Touch
If you're itching to make a fashion statement and feel bare without your Egyptian earrings or bold, chunky necklace, add some individuality with a tote bag like this one from Marc Jacobs.
Bags aren't the only way you can inject some personal style. "Accessories are always a good option to spice up any outfit," says Adolphe. "Depending on your office dress code, you could wear more fashion-forward shoes with a classic black suit, or to add a little something special to your outfit, try a printed neck scarf."
Business formal outfits for women – the dos and don'ts
Now that you have the look down pat, all you need to remember are a few pointers.
Firstly, if you're required to wear pantyhose, think ahead: "I would suggest having a spare pair or two of pantyhose if working in formal workplaces, and having a trusty pair of flats or runners for the commute to and from work." advises Cavill.
Desk drawer staples aside, Nicole Adolphe shares her style tips on how to make a good impression:
- Look for the matching jacket and skirt or trouser suit. It’s sleek, professional and shows you’re ready for business.
- Pick a neat silk button-up shirt. If you invest in a good quality shirt it will last you years.
- Add a silk scarf for a pop of colour. It's easy to get lost in a sea of corporate black. Adding a pop of colour brings vibrancy to your outfit.
- Wear minimal, simple jewellery. Try delicate jewellery instead like a simple pendant necklace.
- Wear low cut tops, short skirts, sandals or anything sheer. It can be hard when summer rolls around, but it’s important to look professional.
- Wear clashing prints. Remember, you're there because of what you can do, not to make a fashion statement.
- Wear sandals. Open-toed shoes are too casual and are a safety hazard. Opt for closed in mules or pumps instead.
- Wear loud earrings. If you love accessorising, keep it simple with a sleek pair of drop earrings or classic pair of studs.