When facing the prospect of business meetings in China, you may be worried about dressing inappropriately and offending your hosts. Luckily, you likely have everything you need in your wardrobe to know what to wear for business in China. Chinese business attire isn’t overly different from Western business attire; it’s all about subtle matters of interpretation and knowing what is or isn’t appropriate.
Keep It Conservative
While in Western culture it can be tempting to be a touch daring in your professional style choices, Chinese business attire leans more toward the conservative. For men, this means simple, well-tailored suits in a conservative cut. For women, this means pants suits or skirt suits that fit a certain uniform standard of professionalism.
Avoid Bright Colors
It can be tempting to add flair to your outfit with a brightly colored tie or an accent scarf to make a statement. Unfortunately, the statement you’re making is that you aren’t familiar with Chinese dress codes. Stick to plain colors; men’s suits should be dark, ranging from gray to black to brown, while women’s attire should fall into simple color ranges with nothing flashy. Tans and muted pastels are often popular, as long as they set a pleasant, neutral tone.
The Gender Differential
While men are expected to dress conservatively, there’s still a different standard for women. Women are expected to dress modestly and appropriately, often more so than in Western workplaces. Women’s attire should:
- Have a conservative neckline that avoids showing or outlining the bust
- Avoid tight-fitting or form-fitting silhouettes in favor of crisp lines and pleats
- Ensure skirts fall no more than two inches above the knee, preferably longer
- Skip high heels for more demure flats
- Stay away from more provocative styles
- Always have some sort of sleeve, preferably full or three-quarter length vs. short sleeves or sleeveless
- Hairstyles should be simple and sleek, not overly elaborate
Not only women are held to these standards. Men should avoid messy, shaggy, or unprofessional haircuts, instead opting for something more traditional and close-cropped. Neither men nor women should indulge in brightly colored hair dyes.
More Casual Than You Think
While standards for Chinese business attire are rather conservative, they’re more casual than you might think. There’s a very limited range between “business professional” and “business casual” that you’ll want to traverse as you make appropriate decisions for the occasion. There’s really no Casual Friday standard in Chinese offices, but you also won’t need to go to the opposite extreme of formal wear and tuxedos in Chinese business environments.
Keep Your Accessories Subtle
Whether it’s cuff-links, necklaces, or earrings, your accessories should be subtle and not overwhelming. Choose small, tasteful, understated items. The goal is to accent, rather than to dazzle with high fashion. Remember that conservative is your constant mantra, and when in doubt choose the least flashy of your available options – or forego any accessories at all. If you have multiple piercings, regardless of where they may be, take them out and leave only the piercings in the lobes of your ears (for women). For men, remove all piercings entirely.
Keep It Crisp
Even if you’ve chosen the right outfit, you can still go wrong with poor presentation. Make sure your clothing is neatly pressed and starched, but not overly starched. If you doubt your ironing and creasing skills, take your clothing to a dry cleaner for proper pressing. Also watch out for lint, pet hair, human hair, or other bits of debris that may diminish your professional appearance.
Invest in a lint roller and make proper use of it, especially when wearing dark colors where the slightest fleck of dandruff, cat hair or cloth fibers will show. Also, always check your clothing for loose buttons, threads, and zippers. Mend them immediately or have them mended by a professional.
Cover Your Tattoos
While in Western culture tattoos are more and more commonly accepted as individual signs of personal expression and artistic tastes, in China tattoos are more often associated with organized crime and gang activity. If you want to be seen as professional, cover your tattoos. If you’re following conservative business attire, this shouldn’t be an issue. Long pants, long sleeves, and a modest collar should cover anything visible.
Anything But Drab
While your options for clothing may seem dull in comparison to what you’re used to, if you follow this advice you’ll present a neat, clean silhouette that impresses with a sharp professional look and respect for Chinese business practices.
Understanding culture, expectations, and realities about business interactions in China is a must in a business world that continues to be more global. A short-term study abroad program in China is a great way for students to get an in-person look at such expectations and cultural norms.