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business casual

What Does Business Casual Mean?

Working for a company that allows business casual dress means you won’t be relegated to a formal suit and tie every day, but it will still require you to dress smart for work. Today many people use the term business casual in different ways, so it’s important to check with your workplace as to exactly what is allowed within its business casual guidelines. Here’s a quick primer to get you started on understanding this dress code.

Defining Business Casual Today

The term business casual became popular in the 1990s when founders of Silicon Valley startups defied the tradition of wearing a suit and tie to work every day. This idea of business casual has ebbed and flowed over the years, and casual Fridays eventually moved to business casual dress codes for many everyday workplaces. At best, the term remains ambiguous in today’s culture. Most workplaces agree that business casual dress should look professional and businesslike, while also presenting a positive, polished image – but without the formality of traditional workwear such as a men’s suit and tie or a women’s skirt or pantsuit. What exactly that entails in terms of specific pieces and clothing items, however, can vary among specific companies. Some companies may not allow employees to wear items such as casual jeans and T-shirts, while others do. Some may allow specific items like khaki pants and collared shirts, while others are open to denim pants and casual blouses. Since there is no clear, standardized definition, it’s important that employees refer to their human resources (HR) departments if they are unsure of what is permitted.

Basic Guide to Business Casual for Women

There are some basics that many people think of when it comes to a woman’s business casual wardrobe. Remember, the focus is on looking relaxed yet professional and capable. Basic workplace hygiene standards always apply – such as wearing clothing that is clean, in good condition and does not have visible stains, rips, or other disrepair. Business casual clothing should fit well and skim the body without being too tight or too loose (very big or baggy styles are usually considered a sloppy look and not tolerated, though loose blouses and tunic tops may be allowed). Clothing should also be modest enough to look appropriate – revealing clothing is rarely acceptable in the workplace. Items to include for a wardrobe for women’s business casual attire include:

  • Button-up shirts or blouses
  • Cardigan sweaters, women's sweaters or sweater sets
  • Turtlenecks
  • Various sweater styles
  • Business-appropriate dresses (such as sheath styles)
  • Tunic style shirts (not all workplaces may allow)
  • Collared tops
  • Blazers

Pant and skirt staples for a ladies' business casual workplace include:

  • Twill, khaki, or chino pants in neutral colors
  • Straight, boot cut or slim fit pants
  • Cropped pants (may not be allowed by all workplaces)
  • Corduroy pants for women (or skirts)
  • Pencil skirts
  • Knee or tea-length skirts

Shoe styles to invest in for business casual for women include:

  • Ballet flats
  • Pointed-toe flats
  • Wedge heels
  • Short pumps
  • Short ankle boots
  • Standard pumps or heels

Accessories like simple print or solid-color scarves, simple belts, small earrings, and classic necklaces are also good choices for business casual accessories.

Basics of Business Casual for Men

Like ladies, men need to dress in a way that looks professional and pulled-together under a business casual dress code. Getting the right fit on the body and length is important to convey a smart look, so choose sizes that are going to closely match your sizing needs, or consider having items tailored to look their best.

Pant options for men include:

  • Wool or synthetic blend dress pants
  • Twill, khaki, or cotton pants
  • Corduroy pants

Tops for men to own for a business casual wardrobe:

  • Long-sleeve button-down men's dress shirts
  • Professional-looking men's sweaters
  • Polo shirts (may not be allowed at all workplaces)
  • Sweater vests
  • Men’s cardigan sweaters
  • Sport coat or blazer (usually optional)

Other items men will need include a nice belt, dress shoes, and ties.

Color Options for Business Casual Wardrobes

The color options typically used in a business casual environment call for lots of neutral colors, classic colors, and neutral hues, including tans, greys, navy blues, light blues, shades of white or cream, browns, pastel colors, medium-rich colors, and jewel tones. Bright or vivid shades are usually better for a smart casual or relaxed casual dress code, but they may be allowed under business casual depending on your workplace. You can never go wrong with classic black or white or any neutral tone. Accessories are a bit of a different store – colored ties and scarves may be permitted in many business casual environments.

Focus on Quality Basics

Simply put, business casual is about classic basics that look professional without wearing a formal business suit. Some companies, especially those that are client-facing such as finance and legal businesses, may need to present a more conservative approach even if they employ a business casual dress code. Startups and artistic companies, however, may take a more relaxed stance on exactly what defines business casual and allow items like men's and women's jeans, trendy blouses, and creative accessories. Invest in classic, well-made pieces that have a timeless style and fit you well for the basics of a work wardrobe you can always count on.