How to crack the business casual code

Still dressing for work like you just got out of bed? Top style expert Mary Lou Andre can help see you through casual Friday.

How to crack the business casual code

Business casual has become the norm in many industries.

The American workplace is much different than it was 20 or so years ago: Everything from corporate structure and hiring practices to work schedules and compensation has been affected. But these important areas are not the only marked differences in today's changing workplace. Business casual clothing changed the appearance of the American worker.

Not too long ago, everyone from the most seasoned professionals to entry-level employees had a common understanding of appropriate business attire. Thanks to younger generations influencing the workplace—business casual dress codes included—it's no longer that simple.

So how do you dress down for work without looking like you're headed to the beach? Here are a few easy rules to live—and dress—by:

Consider your work environment

If you're meeting with clients or having business lunches, err on the conservative side. It's a sign of professional respect, and you can save the khakis for a time when you'll be in the office all day.

Strive for consistency

If you wear tailored and conservative outfits Monday through Thursday, Friday isn't the day to show up like you just rolled out of bed. No matter what industry you're in, consistency goes a long way in establishing trust and credibility with all your internal and external contacts.

Ask first, dress later

Show respect for both yourself and management by avoiding things like jeans, sneakers, hats, and T-shirts. Some companies do take a more lenient approach to casual dressing, so be sure to check with your HR department or manager before showing up dressed for a barbecue.

Look inside your closet

Finally, you shouldn't have to run out and buy an entire new wardrobe just to meet a business casual dress code. Chances are you already own many of the items you need.

Applying business casual

So now that you've figured out the rules and banished your suits to the back of the closet, here are a few ideas to bring you into the business casual corporate culture.

For women

  • If your company's idea of casual isn't quite jeans and sweaters, pantsuits are the answer. Not only are they trendy, but they can be dressed up or down. Choose a dark neutral shade like black, navy, brown, or gray and opt for pants with a bootleg cut. Pair them with a light sweater, and you'll be ready to go from your desk to a client meeting without a second thought. 
  • The most current dress style to own for work is a classic sheath, which is fitted to flatter the body's natural curves without being too tight or revealing. Pair it up with a cardigan or a blazer in the same fabric and color. 
  • Stock up on different tops to give your wardrobe a bit of versatility. Crisp, cotton shirts in white and hues like chambray and chartreuse instantly add a casual element to your dress pants or khakis. Cardigan twin sets are also an easy way to present a softer look while still looking professional. 
  • Jewelry, scarves and other accessories will add a polished touch to any outfit. Remember: Less is more.

For men

  • A sport coat instantly creates a pulled together look, especially in a business casual environment. It's also an ideal choice for client meetings or presentations. Pair up a black, navy blue, or dark gray blazer with khakis or dark wool pants. 
  • In addition to traditional dress slacks, you can opt for khakis, Dockers, corduroys, wool, flannel, and linen slacks, either with or without a blazer. Just because it's casual day, it doesn't mean you can turn up in wrinkled pants. Be sure to iron them beforehand. 
  • Casual button-down oxford shirts are a great alternative to dress shirts, with or without a tie. Skip the loud prints like plaid, and opt for basic white, chambray, or pinstripe. 
  • Unkempt footwear can ruin an otherwise polished look. Oxfords and loafers in brown or black are a good match for khakis or corduroys, but save the sneakers and hiking boots for the weekend.

Style yourself for success

Business casual is just one of the many ways the workplace has evolved in recent decades, and you can be sure there's more transformations forthcoming. It's a lot to keep track of. Need some help with that? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you'll get career advice, job search tips, trends, and insights delivered directly to your inbox to keep you ahead of the curve.

Mary Lou Andre is a nationally recognized stylist, corporate image consultant, speaker and author. She is founder and president of Organization By Design, Inc., a Needham, Massachusetts-based wardrobe management, fashion and image consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations understand the power of being appropriately dressed in a variety of situations. Her fashion and professional image insights are regularly featured in national publications such as In Style, Real Simple, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Marie Claire, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, Esquire, and more.