It’s not always obvious what exactly “business casual dress” means. Fashion and style are subjective, but it’s still a crucial distinction to be able to make in the professional world.
If you lean too hard on the “business” aspect, you could find yourself feeling stuffy and overdressed. And, of course, overemphasizing the “casual” part and is hardly ideal, either. You don’t want to find yourself embarrassed and looking unprofessional in flip flops or sweatpants.
One of the most frequent career roadblocks she has observed is inappropriate dress in the workplace. Darlene Price, president of Well Said, Inc., and author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, explains “many highly intelligent, well-qualified, capable men and women are often disqualified or dismissed because ‘they don’t sell for what they’re worth,'”
“They’ve left the ‘business’ out of ‘business casual’ and the lack of professional appearance holds them back. It’s frustrating, because clothing certainly does not determine one’s actual competence and credibility; it does, however, influence others’ perception of those qualities — and that reality impacts career opportunities.”
The problem is, most people don’t have a clear understanding of the different dress codes today. Appropriate business casual dress typically includes slacks or khakis, dress shirt or blouse, open-collar or polo shirt, optional tie or seasonal sport coat, a dress or skirt at knee-length or below, a tailored blazer, knit shirt or sweater, and loafers or dress shoes that cover all or most of the foot.
5 Rules of Business Casual: It’s a Scale
Business causal depends largely on the situation. There’s a wide range of outfits you can use for the situation. Scale up or down based on what you need to do. On the more casual end of the scale use jackets, premium t-shirts, clean white sneakers, and jeans. For the middle of the scale, use polos, blazers, suit jackets, chinos, and sometimes jeans. For the business end of the scale use oxford shoes, sport coats, suits (tie or not), and dress shirts.
- When in doubt dress up.
- The situation dictates where on the scale you land–meeting a client, dress up, summer Friday, dress down.
- Dress slightly better than average at your company.
- Dress higher on the scale for interviews, presentations, industry events, and negotiating for a raise.
- Dress closer towards the next position you’re aiming for.
Build the Perfect Wardrobe
20 pieces (not counting the socks and underwear) gives you a head start on a minimalist wardrobe because once a week is how often most people do laundry. We want enough clothes for each day of the week, plus a few extra days just in case. 20 pieces will get you to a week and a half of outfits.
- 10 tops – Mix of polos, dress shirts, and one or two premium t-shirts
- 2 sweaters – go V-neck, shawl collar
- 5 pants – Mix of Chinos, Jeans, and Dress pants
- 10 pairs of underwear
- 10 pairs of socks
- 2 pair of leather shoes – Loafer and drivers
- 1 pair of sneakers – classic white leather sneakers
Be the Man In the Office Who Nails Business-Casual
Now you know how to make business casual work. So don’t be the guy that emphasizes the casual side when you could dress business casual. Be the guy that gets it right.
Even if the rest of your office is wearing jeans, just hold yourself to a higher standard. Take it one step up. Be the guy that look professional, even if you’re the only one. You’ll stand out in the right way. The people who matter will notice.