Business casual attire is less formal than traditional business clothing but still professional enough to be office appropriate. For women, this typically means a skirt or slacks, a button down blouse, and closed-toe shoes. For men, this typically means a button down shirt, slacks, and dress shoes.
Over 60 percent of businesses now allow business casual attire, according to a survey by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), but it still causes confusion among employees and managers. We’re sharing some basic guidelines below that you and your employees can follow the next time you’re asked to dress up in business casual.
What Business Casual Means For Women
Business casual for women can be a combination of skirt or slacks paired with a button-down blouse. A simple sheath dress can also be worn. A simple jacket or blazer can be added to complete the look for dressier occasions. Shoes should ideally be closed-toe, but women can wear open-toe shoes with heels.
Below are some examples of the types of clothing women can use in mixing and matching their business casual outfit:
- Tops: wrap-around cotton blouses, classy sleeveless shirts, turtle necks, tops with dressy but decent necklines, sheath dresses in neutral and solid colors
- Bottoms: pencil-cut skirts, knee-length skirts, dress pants
- Shoes: stilettos, pumps, open-toed heels, closed kitten heels
- Avoid: strappy flat sandals, ballet flats, denim, pants with bold prints and bright colors, spaghetti straps
Expert Tip: “Business casual must be one of the vaguest
dress code terms in use today. What is actually ‘wear-to-work’ appropriate depends entirely on your field, location, and office. However, there are some fast rules to keep in mind. Don’t wear anything too sexy, meaning nothing skin tight and no thigh-high slits. If you want to be on the safe side, these are some tried and true business casual staples: slacks, blouses, pencil skirts, button downs, flats (closed-toe) or heels, and tailored dresses.”
– Amber Nuetzel, Merchandising Manager, Ever-Pretty
What Business Casual Means For Men
Business casual is probably easier to figure out for men than for women. The business casual basics for men include a long-sleeved button down shirt, pants, socks, and dress shoes.
Here are some sample pieces for men:
- Tops: short-sleeved button down shirts ideally in neutral colors; avoid printed shirts
- Bottoms: semi-formal pants, dress slacks, dark jeans – ideally when wearing blazer
- Shoes: tie-up shoes, classic dark leather shoes, classy loafers
- Avoid: sandals, boots, boat shoes
Expert Tip: “Business casual for men is not a casual look.
It’s a look meant for business purposes. The idea is to project a professional image while enjoying more casual attire. You must appear neat and groomed, and yet, relaxed at the same time. But never too relaxed. You can’t just wear the same clothes you’d wear to your neighbor’s barbecue or to your favorite bar, even if you dress them up. Business-casual is not dressing up a casual outfit; it’s dressing down a business outfit.”
– Robert van Tongeren, Restart Your Style
Business Casual Tips & Reminders
Here are some tips and reminders on how to dress business casual:
Make your business’ dress code clear.
“Most companies don’t have a clear dress code policy,
which adds to the confusion. The line of acceptable work attire is subtle, and the evolution of fashion is endless. As the lines have started to blur among sportswear, leisure, and androgyny, depending on the workplace and type of position, blending the classic with contemporary are the new business casual.”
– Courtney Wilkins, Alumna and MFA, Academy of Art University‘s Graduate School of Fashion Journalism.
Make things easier on your employees by establishing your company’s dress policy and what’s appropriate and what’s not. Ultimately, it’s about letting your employees have fun and express themselves, while still looking professional. However, if you have some strict no’s, don’t leave your employees guessing. For example, make it clear if open toe shoes aren’t allowed.
Play it safe when you’re in doubt.
“When transitioning to a new workplace, I’d always
recommend going conservative and classic at the start. For women, you can never go wrong with a great pair of trousers and a classic silk shirt. Start with a an architectural heel and a structured bag and build out from there.”
– Lindsay Narain, Founder & Designer, VAUGHAN
Stick to clean lines.
“The first key rule is to always steer on the side of clean
lines. I think the reason business casual was a great option 20+ years ago is because it took business pieces and allowed them to be mixed with more relaxed clothing, preserving the integrity of the look. In the world we live in today, where that might feel too stuffy, I recommend investing in pieces that have structure, such as impeccably fitting blazers, ankle-length tailored pants, and sheath dresses for women, and blazers and clean-lined shirts for men. These wardrobe staples allow you to create looks that are professional, yet elegant and modern.”
– Dina Scherer, Image & Wardrobe Stylist, Personal Shopper, Owner, Modnitsa Styling
Remember, you’re dressing for work.
“It’s always important to remember that you are dressing
for work. A person dressing business casual should feel like they are going to work in what they are wearing. If jeans are allowed, they should be in a darker wash and not distressed. Things like sweatshirts should be avoided unless it is considered acceptable to wear to work in that particular industry. If leggings are acceptable, wear them with pieces that cover the bum. Practice sitting to make sure that skirts or dresses don’t reveal too much. Think tailored even if the dress code is business casual. If you feel too relaxed or like you are dressing for the weekend, you’re probably not dressed well enough.”
– Bridgette Raes, President, Bridgette Raes Style Group
Business casual wear is not sportswear.
“Garments employed for or associated with leisure or
physical activities — think going to the beach, the gym, or lounging around the house — belong to the sportswear category of dress. Business casual wear includes light jackets and blazers, cardigans, slacks, solid jeans, collared and sleeved tops, closed toe shoes, and similarly fashioned garments independently of the wearer’s gender.”
–Henry Navaro, Assistant Professor, Ryerson School of Fashion
Dress according to industry.
“The meaning of business casual depends on your industry.
A financial industry “business casual” would be much different than a fashion industry perspective. Fashion industry wise, it’s more about street style than dress pants. Now if you are in a more strict professional setting, your business casual is different, so make sure you dress it up a bit and stick to classics.”
– Amanda Maxwell, Senior PR Account Executive
Accessorize to put your look together.
“Even the most traditional outfit of blazer, pants, and
blouse will look more updated with a statement necklace or pair of earrings – within reason of course, as you don’t want to overdo it. The jewelry/accents will also help tell a story through your outfit, which will make it look purposeful and put-together.”
– Dina Scherer, Modnista Styling
Men can also accessorize, for instance with a great leather messenger bag or a pair of nice leather shoes.
How Business Casual Has Evolved
Business casual is an ever changing term because it reflects the conventions and attitudes of the time. Wilkins walked us through how the meaning of business casual has evolved over time: In the eighties, business casual consisted of khakis and button-down collared shirts. But once the office allowed “Casual Fridays,” it changed office attire. Life is less formal now, and the concept of office and work have fundamentally changed in accordance with the ever evolving sources of technology, demographics, and consumerism. People are now having fun and integrating color and patterns.”
The Bottom Line on Business Casual
While business casual is subjective based on different factors, there is also a fair amount of common ground when identifying the basics that can always pass. As long as you have the basic pieces of clothing, it’s easy to dress them up a bit or tone them down based on where you work or your type of business.
Here’s a parting tip that’s easy to remember: “business-casual is not dressing up a casual outfit; it’s dressing down a business outfit.”