Professional Dress Doesn't Have to Mean Boring

As the world gets more casual, your business appearance still matters.

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By Adam Toren


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In today's increasingly casual world, where do you draw the line regarding a professional appearance? You don't want to be the entrepreneur in flip-flops for any meeting that's taking place outside of the islands, but how do you know what the new business casual is?

Walk the line between too much and too little with these dress-for-success tips:

Do your research. You're going to meet with a potential client for the first time, but what do you wear? Don't walk into any office setting assuming you know what the dress code is. Treat a new client or vendor meeting like you would a job interview and do some research ahead of time. It's completely appropriate to scope out their HR website to gain clues, or when all else fails, just make a call. You don't even have to identify yourself personally to the receptionist. Say, "Hi, I have an interview today and I was wondering what your office dress code is?" It doesn't matter if you have an interview or not.

Related: 6 Items Every Entrepreneur Needs to Dress for Success

Gauge your appearance based on that feedback. If it's a boardroom, you need a suit option. That means suit and tie for guys and either a professional dress and sport coat or a full suit for ladies. If it's an angel investor meeting in a startup company, then a sport coat, button-down and dark denim might be just fine for both men and women. A little pre-planning can save you a lot of embarrassment, so call ahead and make sure you're presenting yourself right.

Good enough never is. Now that you know who you're meeting with, make sure that you're prepared with the basics: clean, tailored and pressed. There is simply no excuse to say an off-the-rack suit or dress is good enough. You don't have to spend a fortune on your clothes to get them tailored properly. That includes every single sport coat or dress you buy from this day forward.

If you have a budget of $150 for a new professional outfit, then look for one that's $120 and spend the remaining $30 on the tailor. It's shocking in this day and age how many men and women still buy their clothes straight off the rack and go out in public. Get your clothing tailored! That includes your pants, too (denim included!). A pant hem that is too short or bunching up at the bottom is a sign of laziness.

Once you get your clothes back from the tailor, invest in getting them cleaned and pressed professionally, too. This is a consistent practice that matters no matter how casual the professional environment.

Professional Is no excuse for boring. Yes, you need to tailor your clothes to fit your body. Yes, you need some classic, sharp pieces for big meetings and presentations. However, just because it's professional doesn't mean it has to be boring. Make sure your personal brand still comes through in your professional attire.

Related: Make Your Voice and Look an Active Part of Your Brand

There's lots of room for personalization. Men, a memorable, classic sport coat with a bold tie or bow tie and sweater combo can make a big impact, if that's your style. How about a pocket square to offset your tie? For the lady entrepreneurs, rock a tie if that's your style, or tie in a pop of memorable color with a scarf tied to your briefcase or as an accessory to your dress. Also ladies, if your dress is conservative, you have a little more room to be professional but playful with a print or bright color to your blazer.

Whatever your fashion sense, don't be off-the-rack forgettable. Custom fit your clothes and your style to come across as polished and professional.

One Last Thing. Remember Tim Robbin's character Andy Dufresne and his miraculous escape from prison in Shawshank Redemption? Well don't take the Andy Dufresne approach and hope that the Warden doesn't notice your footwear. A good pair of shoes matters for professional settings.

How do you know if you have a good pair? They don't have to be crazy expensive, but they should not have rubber soles. If all your "dress" shoes have black rubber soles, you need to invest some money into better shoes. This goes for men and women.

Your appearance goes head to toe. You can't be pairing that great tailored suit with cheap shoes. For women, also be careful of the style and height of heels. Make sure your choice is for the boardroom, not the boudoir.

Oh, and PS -- this attire advice applies to your entrepreneurial nights out, too. Whether it's a first date or your long-time souse, spruce up a bit for your partner!

Related: 'Clothes' the Deal: 7 Ways to Dress to Impress

Adam Toren

Serial entrepreneur, mentor, advisor and co-founder of

Adam Toren is a serial entrepreneur, mentor, investor and co-founder of He is co-author, with his brother Matthew, of Kidpreneurs and Small Business, BIG Vision: Lessons on How to Dominate Your Market from Self-Made Entrepreneurs Who Did it Right (Wiley). He's based in Phoenix, Ariz.

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