What’s a business casual dress code?

What’s a business casual dress code?

Whether you’re just starting out in your career or you’ve been working for decades, chances are that you’ve experienced some stressful uncertainty when it comes to what to wear to work—even more so when you hear the words “business casual.” While the idea may sound simple, this dress code has become a source of constant confusion for employees around the world. After all, business casual may be interpreted as something completely different depending on who you ask and what type of company you work in.

This guide aims to alleviate some of that panic and give you some general pointers so that you can feel confident and business-ready the next time you get dressed to attend a business casual meeting.

How to dress business casual and what it means

The meaning of business casual can vary depending on the type of place you work. Startups and tech companies tend to have a more laid-back approach to dress codes when compared with large corporations, such as banks and legal firms. Therefore, business casual for men at a startup might be closer to something known as “fashionably casual,” which can include combinations like button-up shirts without a tie paired with a smart pair of jeans, or a nice blouse and dressy jeans for women.

However, in most cases, people think of business casual as a bit smarter. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re going to a meeting and you’re not sure what the other folks will be wearing, it’s always wise to err on the side of caution rather than comfort. In these situations, it’s better to be dressed to impress than underdress. What you’re wearing gives out a message to your colleagues as to how you view the people you’re meeting. What’s more, in the right business casual attire, you’ll feel more confident too.

If you are wondering how you should dress in business casual, you should never be embarrassed to ask your boss, line manager, or HR manager. You’ll not only get an answer to your question but might also get your company thinking about setting up an official dress code that everyone can access and gain a better understanding of what’s expected.

If you’re dressing business casual for a meeting, it’s also important to know with whom you’ll be meeting. If they’re not from your company, do some research by looking at their company website pictures to see how they are dressed, so you can get an idea of what is acceptable to them.

Dress codes to consider for a business casual outfit

Whether male or female, and whether you work for a small startup or corporate giant, the following guide is intended to take the stress out of dressing business casual:

  • Take backups to work. Storing an additional pair of shoes or a smart blazer for emergencies will give you a quick way to get changed if you realize you are slightly underdressed for a meeting.
  • Ooze confidence. The only person who may draw attention to your clothes is you. The other folks at the meeting may not have noticed what you are wearing, but if you are constantly fidgeting or pulling at your clothes you’ll draw unwanted attention and look self-conscious.
  • Make sure your clothes fit properly. You might have chosen the perfect outfit, but if your skirt is too tight or your shirt is too big this will take away from the effort you have made.

The “do’s” and “don’ts” of business casual for women

Ladies, it’s time to consider if you’re hitting the mark on business casual attire. The following guide will ensure that when you next hear the words “business casual,” you’ll know exactly what to reach for in your closet.

Understand the difference between office-appropriate and overdressed

When it comes to dressing business casual, it’s best to leave the clothes that you would wear on a night out at home. For example, a skirt with lots of embellishments or a low-cut top might be classed as dressy but if it would be more at home in a nightclub, then it’s best to leave it at home in favor of something more conservative. Similarly, a bright pop of color from a scarf or statement piece of jewelry may work well against a business casual outfit, but you don’t want it to be the only thing that your colleagues look at. If in doubt about any item of clothing or accessory, it’s always safer to choose something more neutral that doesn’t detract from your presentation.

Invest in the right top

For women, button-up blouses are always a good choice for a business casual meeting. But remember, if your blouse is made of thinner fabric and is white or light colored, don’t wear a dark or brightly colored bra. Avoid showing off too much cleavage if you don’t button it all the way to the top. 

There are other options for wearing a blouse. You could opt for a V-neck top or a smart sweater. There are also many cap-sleeved tops that look and can be combined with a cardigan or blazer.

Wear closed-toe shoes

Unless your office’s dress code specifically allows you to wear open-toe shoes, it’s wise to stick with flats, ankle boots or low-heeled pumps. If you are allowed to show off your toes, don’t wear flip-flops or any sandals that you would wear at the beach. Choose a style in a neutral color that wouldn’t look out of place with a pair of tights.

Think carefully about your trousers

Khakis are a great choice for women as well as men. Straight-leg and bootcut trousers are flattering on most body types and work well for business casual settings. 

Cropped trousers are also a great option, especially in summer, and as a bonus, you can show off your favorite work shoes at the same time. Depending on your office rules, you might even get away with wearing capris. If you are allowed to wear jeans in the office, stick to smart jeans and elegant styles—leave the ripped jeans in the closet for the weekend.

Remember: don’t ever wear leggings or yoga trousers. Just because they are black, doesn’t mean your colleagues won’t notice. 

Dresses and skirts

If you feel more comfortable in dresses and skirts over trousers, keep in mind the following:

  • Pencil skirts or straight-cut skirts are best for a business setting. As an alternative, an A-line skirt can also work well if it’s in a neutral color.
  • A straight-cut shift dress or sheath dress with a belt around the middle to accentuate your shape is ideal and can be paired with flat shoes and a cardigan or casual blazer for an elegant business casual look.
  • In terms of length, it’s best to go for something around your knee or slightly above. Any shorter, and it’s a good idea to also wear hosiery.

The “do’s” and “don’ts” of business casual for men

While some of the tips above for women can also be applied to men, men should also pay attention to the following tips on appropriate clothing for business casual outfits.

A suit is too dressy

A full suit is usually too formal for a business casual meeting. However, that’s not to say you can’t pair the jacket of the suit with other items from your wardrobe. For example, you could wear a suit jacket with smart jeans, or match dress shoes with khakis. Ditch the tie though—it will make your outfit too formal for a business casual setting.

Stick with subdued colors

Traditional business colors tend to be neutral: navy blue, black, beige and gray, etc. In a business casual meeting, it’s usually safer to stick with these same tones. However, if your signature style at work is wearing a bright shirt or a flashy tie and it’s acceptable in your workplace, you’ll probably be able to get away with attention-grabbing colors.

Dress down your dress shirt

A dress shirt can be an integral part of your business casual look, as long as it doesn’t look too dressy. To keep things more casual, you can leave it unbuttoned by one or two buttons at the top. If your neck feels naked without a tie, you could opt to wear a scarf instead to add a pop of color. Another option is to replace the dress shirt with a thin sweater. Either way, finish off your look with a fitted blazer.

Step into the right shoes

Black dress shoes are an option for business casual, but there are many other options you can try. Don’t be afraid to play with color. A pair of navy brogues or gray suede oxfords can add an extra layer of style. You could wear dress boots, too.

Pick the right pair of trousers

If you have permission to wear jeans, make sure they are of a solid, dark wash and that they fit you well. Khakis are another safe choice for business casual meetings. When you are searching for the right pair of business casual trousers, here are some other things to keep in mind:

  • Slim-fit trousers are ideal because they are a departure from traditional wide-leg dress trousers and usually flatter any shape.
  • Your blazer should be a different color from your trousers.
  • Depending on the weather and the type of meeting you are attending, thin cotton trousers or corduroy may also fit the occasion.

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