Fashion Etiquette: Defining Business Casual

There are few terms that cause as much confusion in the office as “Business Casual.” A recent study found that nearly 90 percent of workplace dress codes have become less formal over the past 10 years. Now some employers are trying to reverse the declining trend and finding it difficult to get their employees on board.

So what’s the problem? Many companies don’t have a clear dress code policy, nor are they consistent with an existing policy if one is already in place. Adding to the confusion, certain companies are more relaxed in their definition of “Business Casual,” while others expect employees to dress conservatively, five days a week. You can’t always depend on your colleagues or supervisor to be your best example, either! Who cares and who’s watching? Your client and your competitor…

Here’s a guideline defining Business Casual that may help you find order in your “Business Casual” chaos:

Men’s Business Casual Office Attire

  • Shirts: A crisp, cotton, button-down is your best option. While white or blue are the best colors for a conservative business suit, casual Friday permits a range of darker colors that would not be considered suit appropriate. Still, steer clear of solid black (too severe), chocolate brown (you will look like a chocolate candy bar), and mustard yellow (do you watch the television show “The Office”…Dwight?). Polo shirts are acceptable in some offices and golf shirts, unless you plan to spend the afternoon on the golf course, should be reserved for your Saturday outing with the kids.

    Business Casual Dress Attire via Brooks Brothers

    Business Casual Dress Attire via Brooks Brothers

  • Pants: Khakis or chinos are a good choice, but make sure they are clean, pressed and free from frays at the hem. Corduroy works only in the cooler months and only if it’s approved by your boss. At all cost, avoid linen pants. You will look like a wrinkled mess within seconds of putting them on. Keep your color choices conservative yet casual—think tan, gray, or dark blue.
  • Shoes: Select a simple leather loafer in black and brown.
  • Coat and tie: Always have a sport coat available in the event you are called out to an impromptu business meeting where you need to “up” your image. The same holds true for a tie. You can’t go wrong with having both hanging on the back of your office door.
  • Jeans: Some companies not only allow, but encourage, jeans in the office. If you are working for this particular company, keep your jeans dark, buy a regular fit rather than a low rise with metal buttons on the back pockets and wear a belt.

    Image: J.Crew

    Image: J.Crew

Men’s “Business Casual” Don’ts:

  • T-shirts
  • Hawaiian shirts
  • Faded, frayed, or colored jeans
  • Beachwear of any kind
  • Tennis shoes
  • Deck shoes or topsiders
  •  Sandals or flip-flops

Women’s Business Casual Office Attire

  • Skirts or slacks: Staple pieces in a woman’s “Business Casual” wardrobe include dress slacks and an assortment of knee length pencil skirts. Don’t be afraid to add color to your wardrobe (in a less conservative office) by choosing a pencil skirt in kelly green, pink, or other seasonal colors. Pair with a solid blouse and a sweater or jacket.
  • Shirts: Every woman should have a nice assortment of cotton blouses, patterned shirts and a variety of sleeves, depending on the climate and company policy. A silk blend (think Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, J. Crew) worn with a pair of slacks or skirt look stylish and still feel comfortable. A variety of light weight sweaters, in different colors, compliment the outfit and keep you warm in the chilly air conditioned office.
  • Shoes: A small heel is best to help tie your business casual look together, or a nice pair of flats with a stylish pair of slacks. But beware, not every “body” can pull off flats and some women may appear a bit dowdy based on the choice of shoe and pant or skirt.
  • Jeans: If jeans are an option for your office, select a pair that have a dark wash, flattering cut and will look good with a jacket if you need to run out to a last minute meeting. Steer clear from colored or skinny jeans, and anything that has a fade, fray or hole.

Women’s “Business Casual” Don’ts:

  • Yoga pants
  • Leggings
  • Skinny or colored jeans
  • Sandals with straps between the toe
  • Tennis shoes or flip flops

When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution.


Get Free Email Updates!

Signup now and receive an email once we publish new content.

We will never give away, trade or sell your email address. You can unsubscribe at any time.