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Western dress codes

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Turkish President Abdullah Gül wearing Western-style business suits.

Informal attire, also called International business attire or Western business attire is a dress code, typified by a suit and necktie, for men. On the scale of formality, informal attire is more formal than casual but less formal than semi-formal. It is more presentational than semi-casual, but offers more room for personal expression than semi-formal dress. Informal should not be confused with casual, not even smart casual — in loose common usage, many people refer to informal dress as formal and formal dress (in the technical sense — that is, white tie, black tie, and similar) as very formal; this usage is not accepted by authorities on dress codes.[1] The technical definition of informal is used in this article.



Informal attire consists of, for men, a suit, the main components of which are a pair of trousers with a matching jacket. The suit is typically dark-coloured (with or without a pattern), grey, dark blue or brown. The suit is worn with a long-sleeved shirt and a tie.

Informal attire for women in its strictest interpretation is patterned after the male standard — a suit consisting of a jacket with matching skirt or trousers, plus a blouse. This interpretation of informal attire is not quite so commonly worn by women as by men, as there are other forms of female attire acceptable in informal settings.

Informal attire is today considered a conservative form of dress, appropriate for nearly all formal settings that do not require white tie or black tie. For instance, it is commonly worn in religious services, funerals, government, schools, and other contexts where casual attire is not accepted but formal attire would be considered excessive. At present, informal attire is the typical dress at daytime weddings in the United States, where it is a replacement for the increasingly rare morning dress.

Informal attire is also known as international standard business attire or business formal due to its strong association with business.


The suit was originally a nineteenth-century British innovation in dress: seeking a casual alternative to the long, heavy frock coats then considered appropriate business dress, men began to wear lighter coats cut just below the waist when not engaged in business.

Standard suit making fabric is fine combed wool, with the inclusion of cashmere in more expensive fabrics. Cheaper suits are often made of wool-polyester blends.

This business suit (also known as the "sack suit" in North America, commonly by Brooks Brothers) became the standard business daywear for all men who were not engaged in physical labor. The waistcoat (British) or vest (American) was worn regularly with the suit up to World War II, but is rarely seen today, due to central heating in offices and the expense of construction. Until at least the early 1960s it was common to wear a hat.

In general, business suits are characterized by three styles and fourth fusion style. English suits are noted for having a "touch fit" to the wearer's body shape and carefully made padded shoulders. Italian suits are often slimmer, with higher armholes and highly shaped to complement a slim physique. Traditional American suits have lightly padded shoulders and loose natural fit with minimal shaping. Since the 1960s, designer brands (especially Polo Ralph Lauren) have created fusion style that brings a more shaped European look to the natural American cut.

Suits in Britain were often made in tweed, often with three pieces, and were worn outside the City of London. Tweed is made from uncombed wool, and, like all fabrics from the time, was thick and durable (18oz. was considered medium-weight in the Edwardian era). A full tweed suit is less common today, with just tweed sports jackets more often worn, but is still used generally as everyday wear by some, and for outdoor sports such as shooting and angling. It is worn with appropriate accompanying clothes, much as any other suit; brown full brogues and wool ties are common items not worn with other types of suit.

Coco Chanel pioneered the feminine suit in the early 20th century.

Usage in the workplace

Some men do not wear suits, such as those in the labor industry. They wear uniforms, or other inexpensive, sturdy clothing that can be easily laundered. Wearing a suit to work daily is often an indication of managerial or professional status. However, when on a job interview or attending business meetings, many men who do not otherwise wear suits, will dutifully wear them as a mark of respect and formality. Many how-to books for men recommend wearing a conservatively styled suit to an employment interview even when the man does not expect to ever wear a suit on the job.

In the 1990s, Internet businesses flourished and so did the relaxed dress standards flaunted by unconventional dot-com businesspeople. A new form of attire has arisen, business casual, which consists of nice trousers (not jeans), often chinos or khakis and a polo shirt or short-sleeved shirt. This is today acceptable and common attire at technically-oriented business meetings and in semiprofessional settings, and is continuing to gain ground from traditional business attire.

The standard for women is also in flux. In the 1970s, women aspiring to managerial or professional status were advised to "dress for success" by wearing clothing that imitated the male business suit: jacket and matching skirt, worn with a plain blouse and discreet accessories. The plain blouse is designated as a long sleeve button down shirt tucked properly into the skirt at the waist. Some women wore pantsuits, substituting pants for the skirt, but in doing so, they risked the displeasure of many who felt that women should not wear pants.

Now even conservative Western workplaces are more accepting of pants on female employees. However, they may still expect female employees to exhibit formality of men's suits. Women in "creative" professions, such as advertising or fashion, can usually dress with more color and flair.

Male business attire is also nuanced. Choice of clothing and accessories proclaims social and financial status. An inexpensive ready-to-wear suit will lack the cachet of a bespoke suit fashioned by a famous tailor. Custom shirts, hand-made leather shoes, fine cuff links and expensive watches may indicate wealth, and in certain professions may effectively amount to a "dress code" (eg. in investment banking).

Western business wear is standard in many workplaces around the globe, even in countries where the usual daily wear may be a distinctive national costume.

Some non-Western businesspeople will wear national costume nonetheless. A Saudi Arabian sheikh may wear the traditional robes and headdress to an international conference; United Arab Emirates diplomats in particular are noted for attending conventions of the United Nations General Assembly in full keffiyeh and thawb. Diplomats of the People's Republic of China were similarly noted for wearing the Mao suit to international events before that particular garment went out of style; Indian leaders often wear Nehru jackets, with Manmohan Singh wearing a suit-like combination including such a jacket that goes rather better than would a suit with his Sikh turban. Wearing national costume in such contexts can proclaim national pride, or just extremely high status which allows the wearer to defy convention. Sometimes an element of the national costume such as a hat is combined with a Western business suit; for instance, Yasser Arafat was noted for wearing the aforementioned kaffiyeh with a Western-style military uniform (a derivative of the suit).


  1. ^ Cracking the Dress Code,, Andrew Gilchrist


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