Business Casual Attire: What Is It? (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Oct. 27, 2020

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Though formal or “business formal” attire still has its place in many work environments, it is quickly being replaced as the standard. The new standard dress code for many jobs is “business casual”, a more relaxed version of traditional business wear.

Business casual dress codes are often employed in work settings where employees have regular interaction with customers and clients. It projects a professional image while allowing employees a bit more comfort than traditional business professional dress codes.

This article discusses what business casual really means, and some general rules of thumb for dressing. If you came here because you aren’t sure what’s expected of you from your office dress code, or if you’re just looking to dress for success, you’re in the right place. Below you’ll find some basic guidelines on appropriate business attire for women and for men.

What is Business Casual?

The term “business casual” refers to the space between casual attire and business attire, being both polished and professional as well as comfortable and relaxed. It’s a step down from suits and ties and a step up from jeans and graphic tees.

The exact definition of “business casual” is difficult to pin down as it varies a lot depending on the business environment, your role, and the company culture. Note how people at your organization — and within the industry — typically dress and take that into consideration.

If the company culture is more traditional, or if you have regular face-to-face (or video) interaction with clients, you may want to stick to the formal options here. If the company culture is more laid-back, or if you don’t interact directly with clients, you can probably get away with the more casual-leaning options.

Always make sure to check if there is an office dress code, and defer to that when making decisions on what to wear.

Why Do Companies Have Business Casual Dress Codes?

Organizations use dress codes to enforce varying degrees of uniformity, and to communicate a specific message to employees and those that interact with the organization. Safety measures and industry requirements are also considered when deciding on a dress code.

Companies are very specific in what image they wish to convey, and this affects every visual or (semi-) public aspect of how the company is run. A business casual dress code allows a degree of freedom in dressing for employees, while still communicating that this is a serious business environment. A business casual dress code (as opposed to formal business wear) often communicates more creativity and warmth.

Basics of Grooming

First things first, begin with a clean and polished slate. Neatness and cleanness are the implied foundations of professional dress codes, so be sure that you’ve done the basics before moving onto the outfit. The perfect outfit always begins with good grooming and hygiene habits, such as the following:

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  • Be sure that your clothes are washed, ironed, and fit comfortably

  • Don’t wear any clothing with stains or holes

  • Shower and apply deodorant

  • Shave or groom facial hair

  • Have a clean face or light, natural makeup

  • Clean and trim nails

  • Be sure hair is brushed and neat

Business Casual Dress for Men and Women

In this day and age, there are countless styles and ways of expressing yourself, even within a professional context. There are a range of options available to all genders. We are not here to tell you how to express your identity through your clothing, only to give a wide range of options if you are looking for some help on professional etiquette when it comes to clothes.

Below are options of both traditionally feminine and masculine clothing. Feel free to take fashion tips from one or both sides depending on what makes you comfortable and what works best for your workplace.

Feminine Business Casual Clothing

  • Tops:

    • Blouses and loose-fitting dress shirts

    • Sleeveless dress shirts (worn as a layered look with outerwear)

    • Turtleneck, mock neck and cowl neck sweaters

    • Professional knee-length or midi dresses

  • Bottoms:

    • Pencil skirts (a great business casual staple, try getting several in different fabrics)

    • Neutral-colored or dark jewel toned midi skirts

    • Khaki pants

    • Straight or pegged fitting trousers

  • Outerwear:

    Layering outerwear with blouses and dresses is always a great, stylish option, especially in colder regions and months

    • Cardigans in seasonal fall and winter colors

    • Fitted blazers

    • Cinched vests

    • Tailored suit jackets

    • Pea coats

  • Shoes:

    • Ballet flats (worn with “no show” socks or hosiery)

    • Heels (under five inches)

    • Oxfords

    • Mules

  • Accessories:

    • Neutral colored hosiery

    • Small jewelry such as diamond stud earrings, simple necklaces, and tasteful rings

    • Scarves in plain colors, simple prints, or plaid

    • Skinny belts

Masculine Business Casual Clothing

Here are some masculine clothing options that are appropriate business casual attire:

  • Tops:

    • Long or short sleeve button-up shirts in plain colors or simple prints

    • Polo shirts (dressed up with sport coats or other outerwear)

    • Dress shirts (typically worn without a tie in business casual settings)

    • Solid, seasonal colored sweaters (try layering over button-ups and dress shirts)

    • Solid color t-shirts (worn with outerwear)

  • Bottoms:

    • Slim fit or tailored fit dress pants

    • Slacks in dark neutral colors, beige, or subdued plaid

    • Chinos

    • Khakis

    • Well-tailored, dark wash jeans (pair with button-ups or dress shirts)

  • Shoes:

    Almost always, shoes should be black or brown leather or well-made faux leather

    • Oxfords (try suede material for a stylish, professional alternative to leather)

    • Brogues

    • Formal boots

    • Loafers

  • Outerwear:

    Layering outerwear with business casual tops is a very stylish option for colder regions and months

    • Structured jackets

    • Sport Coats

    • Cardigans

  • Accessories:

    • Belts (matched to shoes)

    • Watches

    • Ties are typically considered more formal accessories, but can be made business casual by pairing with dark wash jeans

What NOT to Wear

The above options and guidelines can be experimented with to see what works best for you and fits best with your work environment. However, there are also some general rules for what you should avoid at all costs, as they are almost always seen as inappropriate for a typical workplace:

  • Crop tops or spaghetti-strap tops

  • Tops and t-shirts with writing or graphic images

  • Sportswear

  • Shorts or skirts that do not cover to at least the knee

  • Cargo shorts

  • Leggings worn as pants

  • Distressed jeans

  • Sneakers

  • Flip flops

  • Heavy makeup

Another important thing to keep in mind is appropriate coloring. Try not to wear overly bright or neon colors, unless it’s a small pop of color in your outfit.

Don’t wear clashing or mismatched colors. For color-pairing help, try looking at a color wheel and avoid pairing colors that are directly opposite each other on the wheel. For instance, a yellow blouse with a purple pencil skirt would probably be a bit of an eye sore unless you really know what you’re doing.

What to Wear When there’s No Dress Code

When there’s no dress code policy, it can be a bit tricky to know what’s expected of you and your wardrobe. If you’re starting at a new job, it’s best to dress more on the formal side and take note of what employees around you are wearing. Never go to a first day on the job dressed in overly-casual clothing.

Another good rule of thumb is to “dress for the job you want.” In other words, look to what higher-ups and senior members of your organization are wearing and use them as examples of how you should be dressing. Perhaps you can even see what your heroes or mentors within your general industry are wearing in professional settings and model your work wardrobe after them.

Please keep in mind that the above tips are geared towards typical, American workplaces and a generalized definition of what “business casual” means. If you are in a specialized industry, especially one dealing with fashion or makeup, the expectations for how you will dress for work will likely be a bit different.

Business Casual for Job Interviews

When it comes to dressing for job interviews, always err on the side of caution. Choose clothing that is more business and less casual. Being seen as overly formal can be a bit of a faux pas depending on the company or organization, but overly casual dress is almost always a big mistake for job interviews. Quick judgments are the name of the game during interviews, and casual clothing can signify that you don’t take this position very seriously.

If possible, try and find a copy of the company’s dress code before interviewing. Even if the company you’re interviewing for has a business casual dress code, try and dress more formally for the interview than you would for the job. You might consider wearing a tie or a suit jacket, and foregoing some of the more casual options listed above (especially the jeans and t-shirts).

Other general tips for job interview dressing include being smart with your accessories and non-clothing items. Don’t show up to your job interview with an unprofessional bag or purse, and don’t wear excessively strong scents.

The above tips also apply to college admissions interviews and career fairs. Business casual on the formal side shows that you are adult, professional, and a serious contender.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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