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What is business casual? A guide to how to dress for work

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Here’s one of the mysteries of today’s workplace: What is the “business casual” dress code?

This is becoming more common in more and more offices and industries. In fact, it has become the norm for many businesses. But what is it?

The problem is that there isn’t one clear definition that applies across the board. The answer is often: It depends on the office. “Business casual” may mean something different to a West Coast tech startup than it does to an East Coast insurance company. This creates uncertainty and confusion.

To help you out, we’ve put together a guide with tips on what to wear — and especially what no wear – at the workplace in a business style.

So, if you see the phrase “business casual” in an employee handbook or a job posting on ZipRecruiter or a similar job board, you’ll know what to do.

What is Business Casual?

It’s important to remember two separate words here: you have “casual,” but you also have “business.”

Business casual dress code is slightly less formal than business professional attire, which means a suit, tie, shirt and dress shoes for men or a tailored skirt and jacket combination, pantsuit or knee-length dress for women.

But it’s more formal and business attire than casual wear, which usually includes jeans, shorts, T-shirts, leggings, sandals, or tennis shoes.

Business casual means comfortable yet work-appropriate clothing. This means that your employer wants you to focus on your work rather than formal office wear, but you are also expected to dress well enough to be able to attend an unexpected meeting with a client, your boss or even your boss your boss

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What to wear for women

Here, women usually have more difficult choices than men.

Women usually can’t go wrong with knee-length dresses and skirts, or a simple combination of blouse and trousers and shoes with a narrow toe. Solid colors are more professional than bold, rich patterns.

Here is a list of appropriate women’s business attire:

  • Professional mid-length sheath dresses
  • Skirts length or below the knee
  • Swimming pants
  • Other pants that aren’t jeans: Khaki, cotton, corduroy, or twill
  • Black or navy blue pants
  • Blouses, with or without collar
  • Sweaters or cardigans
  • Polo or knit shirts
  • Blazers or jackets
  • High heels, boots or ballet flats
  • Not too flashy jewelry

Open-toed shoes are generally prohibited, although some employers will allow them if they look professional enough.

What to wear for men

Men generally have it easier. For a man, business casual dress code usually means khakis, a button-down shirt, a belt, and non-athletic shoes. Without a tie. It is now the work form of countless millions of men.

Here is a list of appropriate business casual attire for men:

  • Long sleeve button up shirts
  • Polo shirts or other collared shirts
  • Wear slacks, khakis or chinos with
  • Sweaters or cardigans
  • Black or brown leather belts
  • Dress socks
  • Black or brown leather shoes – shoes or loafers

A sports coat or jacket is optional for business casual attire, and ties are completely optional. In fact, you can probably skip the tie.

What not to wear

Most of this will be self-explanatory, but the main question you’ll probably face is, are you allowed to wear jeans or not?

The answer is usually no, but it really depends on the individual office or business you work for. Some companies allow you to use dark, well-fitting jeans without holes or rips. Just don’t push your luck.

Here is a list of the clothes you need no clothing for business casual dress code:

  • Hoodies (unless you work at certain tech startups or similar mainstream companies)
  • Sports clothes
  • Tank tops or singlets
  • Short skirts, tight dresses or low-cut tops
  • Cargo pants or shorts
  • Backless tops, crop tops or strapless tops
  • Sundresses
  • Leggings
  • Clothes with tears or holes
  • Anything that has neon colors
  • Jewelry that is too flashy or distracting
  • Sports socks
  • Sandals or flip-flops

A business casual dress code is becoming more and more common in today’s workplace, and surveys show that at least half of all US employers allow business casual attire.

Business casual attire can mean different things in different places. In some workplaces, you will want to avoid wearing polo shirts, while in others it is allowed.

It’s common knowledge that businesses like tech startups and creative agencies usually allow employees to dress business-like, while more traditional industries like law, finance, or insurance often require professional attire.

However, the differences go beyond that. Workplace experts will tell you that businesses on the East Coast tend to have stricter dress codes than those on the West Coast.

A man shakes hands with an interviewer during an interview.
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What to wear to an interview

When it comes to interviewing, we’ve got more tips.

First, you have to get the interview first. Your best bet for doing this is to explore a huge, popular online job board, e.g ZipRecruiter, which is free to use for job seekers. You can search for jobs based on factors such as desired salary, location, or different keywords.

You can post a profile on a website that potential employers can see. Among other things, you can post your CV, testimonials, social media description or profile picture. If a company likes your profile, they may invite you to apply for their job. And if you’re interested, you can apply with just one click.

An online job market like this one is the most effective way to start your job search.

Next, what’s your go-to interview outfit? Interview attire is crucial.

How you look in an interview is almost as important as your qualifications. Planning an outfit can be a delicate balancing act and another source of stress for some people.

You want to look sharp, but not pretentious or dressed up.

Consider industry trends when choosing an outfit. An interview at a business firm? Put on a suit. But it may be overkill for other industries.

Fields of computer science or advertising may be more mundane. The main thing is not to guess. Check the job listing or call ahead and ask. Check with the registrar or HR.

Once you’ve decided what to wear, lay it out before bed – ironed and wrinkle-free. This will save you from having to worry in the morning.

And yes, this is important even for video interviews.

In general, it is better to dress up for an interview than not.

Mike Brasfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. He tries to dress up every day.


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