- Roughly half of organizations have a business casual dress code.
- 61 percent of U.K. workers say they look at companies with strict dress codes negatively.
- Business casual emphasizes a relaxed look while still being professional.
- Keep business casual attire clean and free of tears and rips.
- Jeans work great for business casual with the right style.
Throughout your professional career, you’ve likely come across the term “business casual.” The problem many encounter is that business casual often means different things depending on the organization. Nailing down a specific definition then becomes a significant challenge.
According to a 2018 report from The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), about half of all organizations now permit a business casual dress code. In comparison, only 32 percent of businesses allowed it five years earlier. Additionally, 62 percent of companies permit business casual at least one day out of the week.
These trends indicate a shift in workplace culture. Many employers have chosen to use a business casual dress code as a perk for working in their organizations. In fact, some workers now expect it. A U.K. study found that 61 percent of employees would look at a company that enforces a strict dress code in a negative light. However, a survey of 4,600 people also found that almost a quarter of them said the dress codes at their companies were too lenient. Clearly, a balance must be found.
With so much confusion surrounding business casual dress, it’s no wonder people still have questions. It’s one of those small talk topics people will engage in from time to time. Some may feel like they can’t actually dress casual. Others may say business casual leads to an unprofessional look. The fact is, old stigmas can die hard, especially with unclear definitions.
In this article, learn what business casual attire is and get tips for dressing appropriately under this dress code policy.
What Is Business Casual Attire?
Business casual attire is a type of dress code allowing for a looser standard of dress compared to more professional attire such as suits or blouses. Business casual is an equal combination of stylish and comfortable. The idea behind it is for employees to still look polished and professional but not so stiff and uptight.
The question of business casual often comes up when thinking about how to introduce yourself, how to start off right in a new job, or how to handle being a new leader. At its heart, business casual represents the art of putting in effort to look good but not looking like you spent hours doing so. When people think of business casual attire, they often think of a broad range of staple pieces to create a mix-and-match wardrobe. This can be cost-friendly for employees, too. Many employees appreciate not having to show up in a three-piece suit every day. Having a business casual dress code also eliminates the possibility of people coming to work overdressed.
Business casual attire is also largely dependent on the industry and profession. What qualifies as business casual in one workplace often doesn’t qualify in another office. As Sarah LaFleur, founder of M.M. LaFleur, has stated, “Every office interprets business casual differently. Feel out your office!”
Business Casual vs. Business Professional
You can better understand business casual when you compare it to business professional attire. Here’s a quick look at the differences between the two:
- Gives people more creativity
- Emphasizes comfort in addition to a clean look
- Allows for more colors
- Permits people to express their personalities more
- Is less formal
- Encompasses a practical approach to clothing choice
- Emphasizes a professional look above all
- Is more formal
- Features muted colors and designs to avoid distractions
- Ensures a uniform look among all employees
- Focuses on neutrality rather than extremes
Do’s and Don’ts for Business Casual Clothes
Remember that every business casual dress code will be different depending on the company. The following are general guidelines for what does and doesn’t work.
Do’s For Men
- Collared shirt (dress or polo)
- Dress pants (slacks)
- Matching socks
- Dress shoes
- Blazer (optional)
- Plain sweater (seasonal)
Don’ts For Men
- Sweat pants
- Tennis shoes
- Flip flops
Do’s For Women
- Blouse (collared or non-collared)
- Knee-length skirt
- Subtle jewelry
- 2–3 inch heels
Don’ts For Women
- Tank top
- Flip flops
- Ornate jewelry
In general, a business casual outfit should still be clean and free from rips or tears. You are still a representative for your company, so you should take pride in your appearance. Reflect on what customers, clients, and coworkers will think when they see you. Will they see someone who takes their work seriously yet still seeks a bit more comfort? Or will they see someone who is sloppy and disheveled, caring nothing for what others think of them? Keep those questions in mind as you plan out your business casual shoes and dress shirts.
Are Jeans Business Casual?
Perhaps one of the most pressing questions workers have is related to jeans in the workplace. Do they qualify as an appropriate business casual look? Today, the answer is “yes,” at least in most workplaces. However, the level of acceptability will depend on your job and what your organization’s policy is. For the most part though, jeans will work if you style them well.
If you’re in the mood to wear jeans at work, make sure they have been well-tailored. Overly baggy jeans are distracting and don’t look professional. You should also avoid ripped or distressed jeans.
For women, if you pair your jeans with a nice blouse, blazer, or jewelry, they’ll look suitably professional. When wearing jeans, you should also put on a nice closed-toe shoe. Casual shoes may look too improper.
For men, make sure you pair your jeans with a nice shirt, such as a button-down shirt. Wear a blazer if you want to add to the look.
Both men and women can try out colored denim such as white, black, or tan. Adding texture in this way can be a stylish approach, though some experts say darker colors are better. Johns Hopkins University Career Center’s senior associate director Dawna Reeves says women should, “Keep [jeans] dark wash and pair them with a nicer top and shoes.”
9 of the Top Places to Buy Affordable Business Casual Clothes
When your company permits a business casual approach to clothing, you can start planning your wardrobe. The following are just some of the places where you can find some affordable clothes that provide comfort and a professional look.
- Zara: This retail clothing chain sells a variety of sharp looks for men and women perfect for a casual office environment.
- Nordstrom Rack: This store combines the high quality clothing you would find at a Nordstrom with affordable prices for everyone.
- Saks Off 5th: Another off-price department store that provides stylish clothing you’ll feel comfortable wearing at work.
- Banana Republic: Men and women will find a lot to like with Banana Republic’s selection of clothing that works well with anyone’s tastes.
- White House Black Market: A clothing retailer specializing in women’s clothes. You’ll find modern styles that will show off your professionalism at work.
- H&M: When you need stylish men’s or women’s clothing but also need something affordable, H&M likely has something you want.
- The Real Real: This store is a perfect option for those who want authentic luxury items on resale.
- TJ Maxx: This department store is another option if you need clothing for the workplace but also want to stick to a budget.
- J.Crew: For those searching for a preppy, well-dressed look, J.Crew will provide you with plenty of choices that work best for you.
Looking for Inspiration? Follow These 10 Workplace Style Influencers
Descriptions of business casual attire can help when confusion sets in, but visuals are even more useful. Luckily, many style experts and influencers have resources you can turn to when you have questions over what business casual looks like. Check out the following people to see business casual in action.
- She Goes Wear: Dorothy started her She Goes Wear blog in 2013 and has become an influential figure in promoting all sorts of styles, including workplace wear. You can also check out her Instagram page to see styles for business casual clothes for women.
- Amanda Warsavsky: As a fashion blogger located in New York City, Amanda Warsavsky aims to make business casual attire more enjoyable. She’s worked in environments with strict dress codes before, so she knows how to still show style even when there are a lot of rules.
- Tanesha Awasthi: Awasthi runs the Girl With Curves blog, which promotes stylish office looks for women of all sizes. Her message is one of empowerment and gaining confidence.
- Anh: 9 to 5 Chic is the name of the blog that fashion expert Anh runs. She notes that through her blog, she shows how people can express themselves while at work.
- Jamilah Lang: As she notes on her blog Chic Work Chick, Jamilah Lang started her career shocked at the limitations in workwear for women in the corporate world. She’s trying to change that mindset by inspiring women to still show style no matter where they work.
- Jordan Bunker: With his journalism degree, Jordan Bunker provides a unique approach to men’s fashion. His blog covers a wide range of styles, including attire you can wear to work.
- Charlie Irons: Irons runs the Man About Town blog that discusses and shows looks men can wear. He also provides helpful grooming tips.
- Carl Thompson: While Carl Thompson may cover a wide range of topics on his blog, his main focus is men’s fashion. He even has sections that look at style trends through the decades in case you want to check out a retro look.
- Dan Trepanier: When it comes to design specialists, few can match Dan Trepanier’s expertise. He uses his Articles of Style blog to help men create a professional look that speaks to them.
- Barron Cuadro: Back in 2009, Barron Cuadro started Effortless Gent to help other men improve their wardrobe. He focuses on providing practical guidance to create styles that speak to you.
Adopting a Modern Attitude Toward Business Clothes
While business casual can mean a lot of things, many employers have started relaxing their dress code policies. For example, when Mary Barra became CEO of GM, she changed a multi-page dress code to: “Dress appropriately.” Whatever the policy is, employers must be absolutely clear on their own meaning of business casual. If there are certain clothes that you won’t allow for good reason, communicate that to all employees, and put it in the handbook.
Ultimately, employers must create a space where employees feel comfortable at work. They should also feel authentic to who they are. If they want bright, fun clothes that show their personality, that’s great—it likely won’t distract people from doing their job.
It all comes down to results. If you get amazing results, that’ll speak more for the quality of the organization than what employees wear. Set standards around what produces results in the business. If certain types of clothing don’t detract from that, then who cares? You want to set up a business culture that is more focused on quality work and excellent results. An authoritarian style of leadership that mandates strict dress codes often focuses on rules that don’t matter. As you allow for more freedom, the results will follow.
Learn more about creating an excellent work culture by reading the following article:
Here’s How to Build a Great Corporate Culture
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