“Business casual” is the newest dress code. It’s the most common company dress code, but it still sounds like a misnomer. How can anything be both “business” AND “casual”? Is this professional or relaxed? A party in the back and business in the front didn’t work as a hairstyle, so why is this even a thing? Don’t worry – we did the deep-dive for you!
What is Business Casual?
Blame the ‘90s, when wearing an ‘80s power suit was clearly out of touch, but no one wanted to bring the grunge era into the office. This was the compromise. “We’re friendly and not super formal, but without the risk of possibly offending anyone.” Now that there is “Tech Casual” where t-shirts are the norm, everything else has gotten more casual as well. While there may have been ties in the business world before, that’s now considered formal.
Even Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are easing their dress codes to be more casual. The idea is to combine Wall Street with Silicon Valley, creating a comfortable variation of business clothes without the rigid formality.
All clothing: should be ironed/pressed and never be torn, dirty, or fraying. All seams are finished. Nothing has words, terms, or pictures, and is therefore never offensive to anyone. The only exception would be work-related logos.
Dressy slacks, wool pants, dressy capris, chinos, or nice-looking dress synthetic pants. Avoid pleats at all costs. Khakis are pushing it. Should be ironed with a crease down the front. Dark colors are encouraged unless it’s summer and you might go yachting with Zuckerberg later. Not allowed: jeans, sweatpants, exercise pants, Bermuda shorts, short shorts, bib overalls, leggings, casual capris, sweatpants, or anything that could be mistaken for bicycling gear. If it’s made out of skin-tight spandex, don’t do it. On the other side of the spectrum, please don’t wear too fluffy of things! Leave it at home if it looks like you’re wrapped up in a comforter from your bed.
All reach to the knee area and should be at a length where sitting in public doesn’t require rocket science. Sheath dresses are a prime example, as they neither show any cleavage or much leg. (Some companies consider showing shoulders as “too much”, despite very few people finding shoulders risqué. It’s best to check ahead of time.) Anything that rides up the thigh or is tight is inappropriate, and anything asymmetrical is not professional enough. Always a safe bet: pencil skirts, A-line, or pleated knee-length skirts made out of anything denim. Not allowed due to either amount of skin or considered too casual: miniskirts, skorts, sundresses, ankle-length skirts or dresses, beach dresses, and anything with spaghetti straps or no straps. The general rule of thumb is if you can wear it while at the beach, you shouldn’t wear it to work.
Simply from a financial basis, this is the easiest place to buy things in color. Brightly colored shirts/tops are fine and where you’re most likely to be able to show personality. While men are stuck with button-down tops (but please undo the top button, as it looks odd without a tie to have it buttoned all the way up), women can also wear wrap-around cotton blouses, wide-strap tanks, turtle necks, dressy tops with high necklines, or similar.
In order to avoid looking cheap, it’s best to avoid any shiny fabrics. While it can depend on your region and culture, the corporate world generally prefers to avoid any material that shines (excluding shoes). While you may be in love with a shiny shirt while in the store, don’t make the mistake of wearing it to work.
Allowed: Sweaters with dress pants and dress shoes, collared shirts.
Not allowed: t-shirts, or anything with writing that isn’t the company logo or somehow related to work, such as a client’s logo. Anything else is too casual.
Are Ties Business Casual?
Shoes should be conservative and polished. Brogues, monk-straps, loafers, and oxfords are an easy go-to. Loafers, clogs, boots, flats, dress shoes/heels, and leather desk-type shoes are acceptable.
Women get the range here, with flats, wedges, heels, boots, and heels under 3 inches. Pumps, slingbacks, kitten heels, T-straps, or peep-toes are also great options.
Not allowed: flat sandals or any sandals with a lot of embellishments, straps, or could be worn to a club. Don’t ask about flip-flops.
Blazer vs. Sweater
Sweater, unless you’re angling for a promotion or only own blazers. Casual, remember? Cardigan, pull-over, whatever works for you, but fit is important, so stay away from anything too baggy or ill-fitted. Fine-gauge knits work best, but bulky sweaters do not.
Recently there has been a movement to wear a blazer with a “classically cool” t-shirt. This look consists of a t-shirt displaying a rock band or singer that everyone has heard of (The Rolling Stones, for instance) and then throwing a tailored and well-made blazer, usually dark in color, on top. This look works well for those already established in creative fields, who aren’t interviewing. The rest of the look is sharp, with ironed slacks and polished shoes. The t-shirt is meant to give a glimpse of personality in a tongue-in-cheek way. If you’re interested in this look and the dress code seems fluid at your company, try it on a Friday first and when you’re not seeing clients. Remember that it’s “business casual” and that business is key!
Business Casual Outerwear
While jackets or blazers are more of a requirement while traveling to and from the office, your jean jacket still won’t work. It still needs to look professional, because people do see you in the parking lot, at a professional lunch, etc. Stick with neutral colors for the most coordination: black, charcoal, brown, and navy are easiest.
Buying good outerwear is usually an investment, so make sure it fits well on you physically and fits the climate. Wool coats are usually the warmest, with merino wool being light without losing any of the warmth. It traps the heat inside the fabric, making it warmer than a synthetic blend. Merino wool also regulates your body temperature, which is useful when changing environments on a regular basis.
Merino wool is often the most expensive option, but wool is also excellent at trapping heat. Wool-blend will also do the trick, and are superb choices for anyone living with heavy snow 6 months out of the year. Keep in mind that wool is a natural fur that comes from sheep, so it will keep you both warm and dry during all weather, including rain and snow. Be sure to double-check if the coat requires dry-cleaning ahead of time. If paying for dry-cleaning isn’t in your budget, this next option is for you.
Synthetic outerwear can be both practical and budget-friendly. The newest materials on the market can conquer both rain and snow, without including a dry-cleaning bill. If you’re looking to invest your money wisely, it’s difficult to argue against the wide variety of synthetic materials on the market today. Be sure to stick to classic cuts and conservative colors (camel, navy, gray, or black). It’s hard to go wrong with a classic coat.
Don’t wear a windbreaker. It appears that unless you are a native of Seattle, that it’s nearly impossible to look even remotely ready for work while wearing a windbreaker.
Business Casual “Power Vests”
Vests have become so ubiquitous with the term “business casual” that it needs it’s own section to be addressed directly. While originally worn by the tech industry, bankers and other corporate careers have adopted the look. The vest is worn over a polo shirt or button-down, and usually by men, although this article in Buzzfeed shows how a woman felt when trying a power vest.
The general rule is the East Coast men wear fleece and the West Coast wears padded vests. The younger you are, the more likely you are to wear a performance fabric instead.
Due to some of the more popular brands refusing to make custom vests for the corporate types, all we can safely say is to do your research and tread carefully.
Perfume, Cologne: Please don’t go overboard with the perfume or cologne! Some people are allergic to those, so wear either with great restraint or not at all. Consider how close people are going to get to you before applying.
Men: messenger bag or knapsack, depending on the culture
Women: Clutch, shoulder bag, or tote. Cross-body bags are allowed, depending on the material used.
Minimal and understated for everyone. No one wants to be underestimated because they wore something garish. The easiest way to avoid that error is to keep all jewelry simple.
End of the Day
It’s about proportions. Don’t overdo anything and keep it simple. You can’t go wrong with classic colors and up-to-date clothing cuts. If you can keep the “business” in “business casual”, then your wardrobe will be ideal.