There is no doubt about it: workplace dress codes have changed significantly over the past decade, to the point that many celebrated CEOs are usually seen in casual clothes.
Changes to office policy began in the late 1960s with the introduction of 'casual Friday', and shifting corporate culture –combined with a rise in individualism among employees – has led to increasingly informal dress codes.
As business casual takes over in corporate environments, many believe we have reached the end of the business dress code. Yet the concept of business causal can (and does) cause confusion, since there is no one-size-fits-all formula and its definition can vary between organizations.
This article looks at what business casual attire is, with some tips on how to avoid making a potential faux pas.
Defining Business Casual
One of the reasons there are so many misunderstandings about business casual is because there is no standard definition.
As the concept remains vague, business casual dress codes are often misinterpreted or taken to extremes. As a result, some employees may interpret the statement, ‘no suit required’ as a license to wear whatever they like.
When trying to define what business casual means, it is useful to think along the following lines:
- Wherever customer-facing roles are involved, the ‘business’ part of business casual tends to be emphasized.
- Positions that are not public-facing tend to have a more relaxed attitude towards business casual workwear.
Having said that, there are no standard rules and the concept can differ across countries, cultures and industry sectors. Very generally, two types of business casual dress codes are observed:
- Those that lean towards conservative or formal styles (in industries like legal, accounting, finance and education).
- A more relaxed business casual dress code policy (in sectors like tech, media, fashion, creative and digital).
Now, let's try to establish some guidelines on what is and isn't considered business casual for both male and female employees.
Business Casual for Men: A Guide
A formal suit and tie is no longer a requirement in many workplaces. So, what does that leave us with? Here are some suggestions on what pieces are acceptable for men's business casual attire.
- Shirts – Polo shirts, collared and/or buttoned shirts, crew neck or V-neck sweaters or sweater vests. Sweatshirts and T-shirts may be allowed in informal settings, or for employees with non-customer-facing roles. In most cases, it is best to stick to solid color T-shirts instead of those with logos or graphics.
- Jackets – Blazers, cardigans or suit jackets.
- Pants – Dress slacks, chinos, dressy khakis or corduroys. Denim pants may be accepted in some workplaces/industries, especially if paired with a more formal item of clothing like a blazer. Sweatpants are too casual to qualify as business casual.
- Shoes – Closed-toe shoes like Oxfords, derby shoes, brogues or monk shoes. In some workplaces, slip-on loafers may be acceptable. It is best to avoid tennis or running shoes unless they are specifically allowed.
- Socks – Dark-colored men's dress socks. Avoid brightly colored or athletic socks.
- Ties – Wearing a tie or a bow tie is optional, and in many cases might seem a little formal.
Business Casual for Women: A Guide
- Shirts and tops – Collared and/or buttoned blouses, long- or short-sleeved tops and sweaters, providing cleavage and midriff are not exposed. Backless tops and tank tops are best avoided. Sweatshirts and T-shirts may be allowed in informal settings or in non-customer-facing roles, although in most cases it's best to stick to solid color T-shirts instead of those with graphics.
- Jackets – Not required, but if you choose to wear one, suit jackets, cardigans, twinsets or blazers are all good options.
- Skirts – Knee-length skirts are adequate in most business casual settings. Skirts slightly above the knee may be acceptable in industries like fashion and retail, though it depends on the specific role you have. Miniskirts or skirts with a high slit should be avoided.
- Dresses – Either on their own or paired with a jacket, cardigan or blazer. Ideally, dresses should be knee-length or slightly above the knee in some industries (see above). It's best to avoid extremes (for example, mini or maxi dresses and slip dresses) unless you work in the fashion industry.
- Pants – Dress slacks, chinos, cropped pants or khakis. Dressy capri pants or palazzo-style pants in dark, solid colors may also be worn. Denim pants may be accepted in some workplaces.
- Shoes – Choose flats or closed-toe shoes and, in most cases, avoid sandals. Definitely avoid flip-flops. Ballet pumps, classic loafers, courts, Oxford or brogues are a safe bet. In some cases, peep-toe classic shoes can be acceptable.
- Heeled shoes – It's wise to avoid platform heels, stilettos, wedges and block heels. Acceptable heel styles would include stacked or tapered heels, no higher than 3 inches.
- Socks and hosiery – Dark-colored socks or dress socks are the standard. Wearing pantyhose is not usually required in workplaces with a business casual dress code but if you choose to wear them, go for opaque or nude pantyhose – never patterned or in colors other than black, navy or nude.
What to Do If You’re Unsure of the Dress Policy
Unfortunately, in this day and age, the lines between personal choice and professional image are fluid at best and blurry at worst. The guidelines above are useful but they should not be taken as hard-and-fast rules.
In some cases (when attending a job interview or on your first day at work), you will have to make a decision about what constitutes business casual, while having very little information from your employer.
When deciding what business-appropriate attire means in the absence of specific guidelines, it is best to err on the safe (or conservative) side.
Generally speaking, being overdressed is less problematic than being underdressed, although repeatedly wearing a three-piece suit in an office where jeans and a T-shirt are the norm may negatively affect workplace relationships.
Below are some key tips to bear in mind if you are unsure about a company's dress code:
- Do your research. Check the company's social media profiles or the corporate website to see what employees are wearing.
- Remember you are still at work. The ‘casual’ part of business casual does not eliminate the need for attire to be professional and appropriate.
- Don’t go too casual. The idea for 'casual Friday' was born in Hawaii, and while Hawaiian shirts were OK, shorts and sandals were not. As a guideline, stick to one casual garment per outfit, or mix and match formal clothes (such as a blazer) with casual pieces (jeans).
- Choose classic over trendy. Of course, exceptions apply in certain industry sectors like fashion or film.
- Choose clothes that are coherent with the image of the industry you work in. Ask yourself what your sector is known for. Is it forward-looking and innovative or poised and discreet? Ideally, your attire should strike a balance between your personality and the personality of the organization.
- Colors matter. Go for solid, matching or coordinating colors. If in doubt, stick to neutrals like black, white, gray, navy or brown. In most cases, pastel colors are also safe.
- Fabric type matters too. It's safer to go for knits or woven fabrics instead of stretch or jersey-type fabrics. See-through fabrics are clearly best avoided.
- Don’t forget the details and accessories. You cannot go wrong by choosing formal or conservative accessories, even if the rest of your outfit is rather casual. For example, leather shoes or a leather belt are less likely to be perceived as ‘stuffy’ than a tie or a suit jacket. Jewelry is best worn as an accent – think a modest bracelet instead of a chunky statement necklace.
- Quality, not quantity. Whether we like it or not, the clothes we wear say something about us. Let that something be quality and attention to detail, which are always desirable traits in the business world.
- Neat and tidy can still be casual. Business casual should never be synonymous with ‘unkempt’. Clothes should always fit well, be clean, well maintained and neatly pressed. Shoes should be polished and in good condition.
- Neat and tidy clothes go hand-in-hand with a neat and tidy appearance. Don't underestimate the importance of things like hairstyle and makeup. It’s always safer to go for low-key and subtle choices.
Throughout the corporate world, personal appearance and presentation remain some of the most important factors in employability and career advancement. While informal dress codes are gaining acceptance in an increasing number of modern business settings, the lack of a clear-cut definition about what constitutes business casual can be perplexing.
The fact that business casual codes differ across industry sectors only adds to the confusion – and makes it even more complicated to define what business casual really means.
But the guidelines in this article will help you to understand how to comply with a business casual dress code policy and still remain businesslike. In doing this, your external appearance and choice of workwear will complement your skills, experience, qualifications and personality, and help you match the company you work for.
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