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What Is Business Casual Attire? A Guide to How to Dress for Work

Here’s one of the mysteries of the modern workplace: What exactly is a “business casual attire” dress code?

It’s becoming more common in an increasing number of offices and industries. In fact, for many businesses, it has become the norm. But what is it, exactly?

The problem is, there’s not just one cut-and-dried definition that applies everywhere across the board. The answer is often, It depends on the office. “Business casual” can mean something different at a tech startup on the West Coast than it does at an insurance firm on the East Coast. That creates uncertainty and confusion.

To help you out, we’ve put together a guide with tips on what to wear — and especially what not to wear — in a business casual workplace.

This way, if you see the phrase “business casual attire” in an employee handbook or in 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 the two separate words here: You’ve got “casual,” but you’ve also got “business.”

A business casual dress code is a little less formal than business professional attire, which means suits, ties, a dress shirt and dress shoes for men, or a tailored skirt-and-blazer combo, pantsuit, or knee-length dress for women.

But it’s more formal and businesslike than casual clothes, which typically includes jeans, shorts, T-shirts, leggings, sandals or tennis shoes.

A business casual outfit means comfortable but work-appropriate clothing. It means your employer wants you to focus on your work performance instead of your formal office attire, but you’re also expected to dress well enough to be able to attend an unexpected meeting with a client, your boss or even your boss’ boss.

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What to Wear for Women

Here, women typically have more complicated choices to make than men.

Women generally can’t go wrong with knee-length dresses and skirts, or a simple blouse-and-pant combination and close-toed shoes. Solid colors are more professional than bold, busy patterns.

Here’s a list of appropriate business casual attire for women:

  • Mid-length professional sheath dresses
  • Skirts at or below the knee
  • Dress slacks
  • Other slacks that aren’t jeans: khakis, cotton, corduroy or twill
  • Black or dark blue dress pants
  • Blouses, with or without a collar
  • Sweaters or cardigans
  • Polo or knit shirts
  • Blazers or jackets
  • High heels, dress boots or flats
  • Jewelry that’s not too flashy

Open-toed shoes are usually a no, although some employers will allow them, if they look professional enough.

What to Wear for Men

Men generally have it easier. For a man, a business casual dress code typically means khakis, a button-down shirt, a belt and non-athletic shoes. No tie. This is now the work uniform of countless millions of men.

Here’s a list of appropriate business casual attire for men:

  • Button-down long-sleeved shirts
  • Polo shirts or other collared shirts
  • Dress slacks, khakis or chinos
  • Sweaters or cardigans
  • Black or brown leather belts
  • Dress socks
  • Black or brown leather shoes — dress shoes or loafers

A sport coat or blazer is optional for business casual outfits, and ties are highly 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 in. Some companies will allow dark, well-fitted jeans without any holes or tears. Just don’t push your luck.

Here’s a list of clothing you should not wear for a business casual dress code:

  • Hoodies (unless you work for certain tech startups or similarly casual companies)
  • Sportswear
  • T-shirts or tank tops
  • Short skirts, tight dresses or low-cut tops
  • Cargo pants or shorts
  • Backless tops, crop tops or strapless tops
  • Sundresses
  • Leggings
  • Clothing with rips or holes
  • Anything with neon colors
  • Jewelry that’s too flashy or distracting
  • Athletic socks
  • Sandals or flip-flops

Business-casual dress codes are becoming more and more common in today’s workplace, with surveys showing that at least half of all U.S. employers allow business casual wear on an everyday basis.

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

It’s well known that businesses like tech startups and creative agencies typically allow employees to dress business casual, while more traditional industries like legal, finance or insurance are more likely to require professional dress.

The differences go beyond that, though. 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 a job interview.
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What to Wear for an Interview

When it comes to job interviews, we’ve got a little extra advice.

First, you’ve got to land an interview in the first place. Your best bet to do that is to explore a massive, popular online job board like ZipRecruiter, which is free to use for job seekers. You can search for job posts based on factors like desired salary, location or various keywords.

You can post a profile on the site that potential employers can see. You can post your resume, references, social network handles or a profile picture, among other things. If a company likes your profile, they can invite you to apply for their job. And if you’re interested, you can apply with a click.

An online jobs marketplace like this is the most efficient way to launch a job search.

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

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

You want to look sharp — but not pretentious or underdressed.

Consider industry trends when choosing your outfit. Interviewing at a business firm? Put on a suit. But that might be overkill for other industries.

Computer science or advertising fields might be more casual. The important part is not to guess. Check out the job listing, or call ahead and ask. Check with a receptionist or with HR.

Once you’ve decided what to wear, set it out before you go to bed — pressed and wrinkle-free. It will save you the hassle in the morning.

And yes, this even matters for a video interview.

In general, it’s better to dress up for an interview than to dress down.

Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. He tries to dress in clothes every single day.


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