What Is Business Casual? Our Guide
Simple tips to help you look sharp in the modern workplace.
The only constant is change, and that is particularly true when it comes to what you wear to the office. The days of the power suits and business heels are mostly long gone, save for a few industries. The umbrella term for their sartorial replacement is business casual, which is clothing that is intended to be more laid back and comfortable but still professional.
Dressing properly for your job is likely not on the top of your list when it comes to prioritizing your duties, but the fact is, adhering to a dress code can show that you’re putting in a good faith effort to abide by the company’s culture and be part of the team at large.
The problem is that business casual attire can be interpreted differently. For example, jeans might be allowed if paired with a button-down shirt and blazer at one company, while at another, denim is a no-no.
For anyone starting a new job with a business casual dress code, you definitely don’t want to make a poor first impression by being too casual. For the first couple of weeks, err on the side of professional caution if you’re just not sure if a particular outfit is appropriate. You know how it’s common practice to dress a little more formally for an interview? That same mentality won’t get you in trouble once you’re officially on board, but if you go the other way, it could reflect poorly on you. (Pro tip: If your gut has you questioning whether or not to wear something, then chances are you should probably opt for a different outfit.)
Here are some guidelines to make sure you dress for success.
What Is Business Casual, Exactly?
If there aren’t any explicit rules written down regarding the dress code, stick to the common understanding of business casual: professional clothes that aren’t as formal as the traditional suit-and-tie outfit.
Examples of Business Casual for Women
- Blouses and button-front shirts
- Crewneck sweaters
- Dresses and skirts that hit around the knee
Examples of Business Casual for Men
- Button-front shirts
If a company’s dress code policy includes 10 pages on how women should dress and just one page on how men should dress, well, that’s problematic to say the least—it could also be grounds for a lawsuit. While a company can tell employees what to wear, it has to enforce the policy equally. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees and job seekers from employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), and national origin.
Gender neutral dress codes are a smart solution. Instead of saying men must wear X and women must wear Y, gender-neutral policies “require attire professionally appropriate to the office or unit in which an employee works,” according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Note that the above examples of business casual reflect the male-female gender binary, but not every single worker identifies as either/or. If you identify as nonbinary, genderfluid, etc., and you feel uncomfortable, have an open discussion with your manager and HR.
Business Casual Attire Should:
- Fit properly. Too tight? Too frumpy? Get yourself to a tailor.
- Not reveal too much skin. Some skin isn’t likely to be an issue (examples: V-neck blouse, sleeveless dress). Use your judgement.
- Avoid loud patterns. An exception can be made for those in artistic or creative industries. However, it’s wise to save the parrot-print Hawaiian shirt in your closet for the beach and barbecue.
- Always be in good condition. Stains, wrinkles, holes, and worn patches are automatic disqualifiers.
Are Jeans Business Casual?
It depends. If jeans are part of the business casual dress code, they should be darker washes, free of holes and fraying, and be neither too tight or too baggy. A pair of good quality jeans paired with a blouse and a blazer is a business casual staple in many companies.
Not sure which items of business casual clothing makes the cut in your company? There are a handful of ways to figure out the boundaries on your own.
How to Dress for Your Workplace
1. Take a cue from the type of workplace you’re stepping into. Is it a creative environment with an open layout, vibrant décor and local artwork, or is it a more traditional business setting where executives sit at mahogany desks, and meetings take place in a conference room?
2. Consider what type of company it is. Chances are a law or financial services firm might be more formal-leaning while a marketing or tech startup is usually more toward the business casual end. There are always exceptions, of course, but these are considerations to keep in mind.
3. Read the room. During your hiring and onboarding process, observe what other wear on a typical workday. Are most men wearing shirts and ties with leather shoes, or are polos, khakis, and loafers a more common look? For the women, do slacks with cardigan sweater sets and flats reign supreme, or do you see a lot of dresses, blazers, and pumps?
You don’t necessarily have to copy someone else’s style, but staying in the general fashion vicinity is a smart idea.
All of this being said, you should be prepared to dress to impress. Even in very casual environments, there might be times when you might be asked to dress more formally, such as if there is an important client visiting. Have at least one extra dressy work outfit in your closet just in case.
What Is Never Considered Business Casual Attire?
Individual style is usually celebrated in most workplaces today, but you might want to refrain from getting extra piercings or wearing large, flashy statement pieces if it will make you stand out too much.
Furthermore, there are some types of clothing that even the most casual of dress codes probably won’t work. Here are some wardrobe pieces that you shouldn’t ever wear to the office:
- Yoga or gym clothes. While some fashion sneakers may look like dress shoes (and cost triple the amount), you definitely want to save your running shoes and high-tops for after work. The same goes for track suits and athleisure wear.
- Tank tops. Ladies can look sophisticated in sleeveless tops in a business casual environment, but tanks that have thin spaghetti straps are not work appropriate unless worn under a jacket or sweater.
- Graphic T-shirts. In some offices, people can sometimes wear a plain t-shirt under a blazer for a polished look. But plain is the operative word. Leave the Motörhead, Star Wars, or sports team gear for the weekend.
- Nightclub attire. Rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t wear it to brunch with grandma, then it’s probably not business casual.
- Shorts (unless you work in Bermuda!). Enough said.
- Flip flops. Some businesses might allow open-toed shoes for women in summer months, but they should be fashionable sandals or wedges, not the flip-flops you wear when you get a pedicure or hit the beach.
Business Casual Is Just One Part of Workplace Etiquette
By taking cues from your colleagues and choosing outfits that reflect your workplace culture, you can stay within the boundaries of good taste. Relaxed dress codes are 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? Monster can email career advice, job search tips, trends, and insights directly to your inbox for free to keep you ahead of the curve.