Are You Really Dressed "Business Casual?" Give Your Outfit a Gut Check

Lindsay Kolowich Cox
Lindsay Kolowich Cox



Next week, I'm headed down south for my first conference in a while, and I've already started mentally picking out what I'm going to wear. As someone accustomed to wearing jeans to the office, I can tell this'll take a little bit of planning ahead.

I checked the conference website for clues. Lo and behold, it told me what so many invitations have told me before:

Apparel: Business casual.

Great! No formalwear. I don't last long in high heels, anyway. But what does "business casual" actually mean? Where on the formality spectrum does "biz cas" lie?

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In this blog post, I set out to deconstruct "business casual" once and for all, so you can all agonize over your work, not your clothing.

Quick Tips on Business Casual

  • Overdressing is better than underdressing. So when in doubt, err on the side of formal.
  • Make sure your clothing and shoes are comfortable. The more comfortable you feel, the more confident you feel.
  • Business casual clothes should be ironed, clean, and have no tears or holes at all. All seams should be finished.
  • In the hot summer months, wear things you'll feel comfortable in when you're outside in the heat and inside in air conditioning. Ladies, bring a sweater for that A/C even if it's hot outside. Gentlemen -- we're about to get personal -- try to avoid sweat stains by wearing an undershirt.

Gentlemen: Your Guide to Business Casual

What to Wear

  • Blazer: A blazer isn't required for business casual, but if you like wearing them, it's a nice touch.
  • Shirt: Pressed, button-up collared shirt. White is generally considered the most formal. Don't wear a polo -- you'll risk looking underdressed in a room full of button-downs and blazers. Always tuck your shirt in, and no, you don't need to wear a tie. Definitely do not wear athletic apparel or logo wear (not even your own company's!).
  • Pants: Nice trousers or pressed khakis. Khakis should be flat-front for a clean, fitted look -- not those rumpled chinos you roll up and wear to the beach. Pants should be cotton, although wool is fine; silk, rayon, and linen are no-nos. Wear pants that are black, brown, grey, khaki, or dark colors like blue or green. Avoid pants in loud colors like red, yellow, or purple. No white or camouflage either. As far as pant length, the end of your pants should reach to the top of your shoe or a little longer -- but not so much that they're bunching at your feet.
  • Shoes: Formal leather shoes, leather loafers, or ankle boots in leather or suede if you're super in-vogue. No boat shoes (sorry, fellas), sneakers, or athletic socks. Remember dress socks -- and don't be afraid to wear a pair with some personality!
  • Accessories: Always wear a belt. Wristwatches are a nice touch. You don't have to wear cufflinks, and definitely don't wear a hat or head cover unless it's required for religious purposes or cultural traditions.
  • Outerwear: Nice jacket, V-neck sweater, trench coat, or peacoat. A big no to athletic jackets and sweatshirts.

How is this different from business formal? Business formal requires a matching suit and tie in black, dark grey, or dark blue only, and the color of your shirt should be white, cream, or similarly light colors.

For business casual, these guys have it down -- the middle model erring on a more formal side:


Ladies: Your Guide to Business Casual

What to Wear

  • Shirt: Blouse, plain shirt (with no logo), sweater, turtleneck, or sleeveless shirt with a collar. It's standard to wear a monotone shirt, but patterns are acceptable if they aren't outrageous. You can tuck your shirt in or leave it untucked, depending on your style. Make sure to wear a belt if you tuck your shirt into trousers. Never wear a shirt or dress revealing your cleavage, your back, or your midriff.
  • Pants: Dress pants, khakis, trousers, or corduroy pants. Black and grey are best. No jeans of any color is usually the default, though I've seen certain, less formal industries give well-tailored jeans a pass.
  • Skirt/Dress: No shorter than three inches above the knee. No sundresses or skintight dresses.
  • Shoes: Closed-toed flats are the best option. Leather shoes, formal open-toed shoes, and heels are okay too -- but absolutely no sandals, flip flops, sneakers, or casual boots.
  • Accessories: Light jewelry and a simple, nice-looking purse. No hats or head covers unless it's required for religious purposes or cultural traditions.
  • Outerwear: A nice sweater, jacket, trench coat, or peacoat is appropriate. No athletic jackets, or sweatshirts.

How is this different from business formal? Business formal requires a matching suit in black, dark grey, or dark blue only, and the color and pattern of your shirt should simple -- white, cream, black, blue, that sort of thing. Wear closed-toe, low-heeled shoes (two inches or less) in black, dark grey, or dark blue for business formal.

For business casual, these ladies know what's up:


I hope this helps clarify the ambiguity. Of course, every industry has their own nuances. If you're ever unsure whether your next event will require a more "formal" business casual versus a more "relaxed" biz cas, check out the photos from previous events. It's an easy way to get a temperature check on the nuances of the dress code.

Credits: Toppel Peers

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Topics: Company Culture

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