Business casual: what does it even mean?

People in a Meeting
(Image credit: Jason Goodman / Unsplash)

The world of fashion is confusing and fast-moving, and it’s even more daunting when you’re trying to navigate a business casual dress code in a professional environment.

It’s tricky to figure out what that sometimes means, especially when fashion trends change so frequently – and when you consider that men and women have to follow different rules to adhere to business casual guidelines.

If you’re unsure about what business casual means and uncertain about what to wear at work, then read on – we’ve explained the term and unpacked what it means for men and women.

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The business of business casual

Business casual has been around for decades, and it’s never had such a firm hold on the corporate world – especially now that most companies keep their dress codes more relaxed. It’s no wonder that it’s popular: most employees feel more productive with a relaxed dress code, and most jobseekers would turn away from a business if it had strict rules on clothing.

If you’re scouring the internet to try and find a firm definition for business casual clothing, then you’ll end up disappointed – there’s not really a proper definition, and the rules often change in different countries.

The best way to define the term isn’t to look for precise words – it’s to examine the core rules that make up this oft-used dress code. Generally, you’ll find that the financial, legal and academic industries sit at the more business-like end of the scale, with full suits more common, while the media, design and digital industries allow more dress code leeway, with jeans and t-shirts sometimes acceptable.

Women Business Casual

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Business casual for women

It may be impossible to define business casual in the dictionary, but women can adhere to dress codes by following some specific rules.

If you’re going to wear a skirt or dress, it’s always a safe bet to make sure it’s knee-length and not too tight. Pants or chinos are always a good idea, and blouses and shirts are always great. Blazers are a classic fit in any business-casual wardrobe, and closed-toed shoes are usually preferred.

Solid colors are a safer bet than a bold pattern, sweaters are great when it’s colder, and dark socks are better than eye-catching designs. Jewelry is best as an accessory rather than a statement.

Women should avoid tops that show plenty of cleavage or midriff, t-shirts are generally not allowed, and you should avoid shorts. You should only wear jeans in more casual workplaces, and it’s a good idea to avoid higher heels.

Business Casual for Men

(Image credit: Muhammad Faiz Zulkeflee / Unsplash)

Business casual for men

Men, like women, can adhere to a business casual dress code by following a few simple rules. Slacks or chinos are suitable, while you shouldn’t wear jeans in most business environments. Button-down shirts are the rule, with long-sleeved shirts preferable, and a smart sweater is an ideal top layer if it’s chilly.

Sometimes you’ll get away with wearing a polo shirt, and also remember that a blazer or jacket can perfect your business casual look.

Black or brown shoes are welcome alongside a belt in the same shade, and ties are usually optional. When considering footwear, remember that sneakers and sandals aren’t acceptable.

Business casual rules of thumb

We’ve outlined the key rules for men and women to follow when building business casual outfits. Beyond this, plenty of tips and tricks can really help your outfits make the grade.

Keep things formal in a job interview and when you start a new position – until you’ve weighed up what other people are wearing. Make sure to wear smart, neat clothes if you’ve got meetings planned with people from outside the business.

Always make sure that your clothes fit properly – not too tight or too baggy – and keep your colors consistent and make sure they don’t clash. Distracting jewelry is never a good idea, and don’t accidentally wear fabrics that stretch and become see-through.

Don’t wear damaged or tatty clothes, be aware of bold or potentially offensive designs on clothes, and avoid ripped clothes, spaghetti straps, sportswear, and hooded sweatshirts.

Also it’s worth remembering that it’s possible to dress too formally. If everyone at work is wearing slacks, blouses, sweaters and relatively relaxed footwear, then you’re going to attract attention if you arrive in a bow-tie or a three-piece suit.

Ultimately, if you want to fit in at work and adhere to the rules, it’s important to keep things appropriate – and that means not going too casual or too formal.

Business casual may be hard to define, but you’ll not stray too far wrong if you follow these evergreen rules and spend some time considering what you’ll be wearing to the office. And, if you’re unsure, ask HR for clarification – they’ll be happy to help.

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Mike has worked as a technology journalist for more than a decade and has written for most of the UK’s big technology titles alongside numerous global outlets. He loves PCs, laptops and any new hardware, and covers everything from the latest business trends to high-end gaming gear.