Exactly What is Business Casual?

You probably have at least a vague idea of what you’re supposed to wear to a job interview—but then, if all goes well, you get the job offer. And at some point, you’re told that the office dress code is business casual.

But what does that even mean? Strict “business attire” may be less comfortable for daily wear, but at least we all know what it is. (Hint: It’s a suit.) Business casual is a different sartorial beast. We’re pretty sure it means you don’t have to wear a suit, but you shouldn’t wear jeans—except maybe on Fridays? It’s all very subjective and can be different from company to company. So, let’s go over some of the ins and outs of the business casual workplace.

First, Consider the Culture

There are two major cultural factors to consider when deciding on what business casual means at a specific workplace: where you are and what industry you’re in. Culturally speaking, the East Coast tends to be more formal than the West Coast at the workplace. While “business casual” in New York may mean khakis and a blazer with dress shoes, in LA it may mean jeans and a dress shirt. Similarly, certain industries tend toward more or less conservative cultures. Finance and law, for example, tend towards the conservative, while tech companies are usually a bit laxer. (The majority of my friends are software developers, and I’ve never seen them in anything more formal than a polo shirt, to give you an idea.)

A good rule of thumb is thinking about how client-facing your industry is. The more client-facing you are, the more buttoned-up it serves you to be. If you almost never see clients, you may be able to dress on the more casual side of business casual.

Some Safe Choices

While business casual is a subjective, ill-defined thing, there are some wardrobe pieces that you can generally count on as being appropriate. These pieces are:

  • Sheath dresses
  • Button-down shirts
  • Blazers/sports coats
  • Slacks
  • Khaki pants
  • Pencil skirts
  • Sweaters
  • Dress shoes/socks

You can’t go wrong with a sheath dress and sweater or a button-down with slacks or a pencil skirt. Good shoes are important as well—it’s okay to wear your sneakers or snow boots during your commute, but think hard about if you need to bring a pair of flats or loafers in your bag to change into. The idea is to be comfortable (i.e., not in a full suit) while still being polished and professional.

What to Avoid

Speaking of polished and professional (or not), there are some pieces that have no place in a business casual wardrobe:

  • Shorts
  • Athletic wear (including socks)
  • Overly revealing clothing (miniskirts, etc.)
  • T-shirts (especially with offensive/inappropriate messages)
  • Ripped jeans
  • Flip-flops

These are largely flat-out “nopes” when it comes to office attire. Even if your office has a casual dress code, most of these items take “casual” a bit too far. Offensive t-shirts have no business in the workplace (or in anyone’s wardrobe to begin with, really), and ripped clothing is only appropriate if your workplace is Hot Topic. Other items on this list simply break the basic rules of dress—like how you should never ever wear white athletic socks with dress shoes. So save these clothing items for the weekends.

You probably noticed the absence of jeans on these lists. While jeans are generally not appropriate for business casual looks, many offices have a casual Friday or similar policy, where jeans are perfectly acceptable on certain days. Also, the more-casual business casual offices may allow jeans with professional shirts/tops and shoes. It simply depends on the office culture. But, at least until you’ve taken the temperature of the company’s workday attire, it’s best to avoid jeans altogether except on company-wide dress-down days.

A Final Note

As Oscar Wilde said, “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.” So if you’re still confused over what business casual is—can’t blame you there—err on the more formal side. If you’re not sure if you should go tie or no tie, go with the tie. Khakis or dress pants? Dress pants all the way. It’s always better to start off dressing on the sharp side and adjusting for comfort down the line rather than coming in too casual right from the start. Trust me, it’s better to be the only person in the room wearing a blazer than the only person in the room not wearing one.

Written by: Kaitlin McManus | VAULT 

By Susan Hyde-Wick
Susan Hyde-Wick Career Counselor Profile Picture