What Does Business Casual Attire Mean?

The Do's and Don'ts of Dressing Down for Business

Business people having meeting in conference room
••• Sydney Roberts / Getty Images

Business casual sounds like a breeze — no more worries about what to wear to work, right? Not quite. In fact, this dress code guideline is a frequent source of confusion for workers. And it's not their fault — there really isn't a clear, standardized definition. Business casual may mean different things at different companies, cities, and industries. And on top of that, understanding the subtle differences between "business" and "business casual" isn't easy.

One thing is clear: Dressing in shorts and a t-shirt or a sundress and sandals is too casual. But wearing a full suit — and a tie, if you're a man — is too formal. When in doubt, it's better to err on the side of dressing too formally, rather than too casually. But where's the line?

Read on for guidelines that will help define appropriate business casual attire for men and women, along with general advice on what to wear, and what not to wear, in the office and during job interviews. 

Business Casual Attire Basics

Emily Roberts. © The Balance, 2018

Women

Women should wear a combination of a skirt or dress slacks, blouse, sweater, twinset, jacket (optional), and hosiery (optional) with closed toe shoes. Sandals or peep-toe shoes may be permissible in some offices but save flip-flops for the weekend. Any working girl should have the following staples in her wardrobe:

  • Khaki, corduroy, twill, or cotton pants or conservative-length skirts
  • Sweaters, twinsets, cardigans, polo/knit shirts
  • A professional dress - try a sheath silhouette
  • Solid colors are preferable over bright patterns

Men

For men, appropriate business casual attire is dress slacks or chinos, a button-down shirt, dark socks, and dress shoes. Avoid wearing polo shirts to an interview, even if they are acceptable for the job in question. Do not wear jeans or shorts. The following will help you solidify good standing at a new job:

  • Khaki, gabardine, wool, or cotton pants, neatly pressed
  • Cotton long-sleeve, button-down shirts, pressed
  • Sweaters
  • Leather shoes, in black and brown
  • Leather belt, in black and brown
  • A selection of ties

Additional Dress Code Rules to Consider

Look Before You Leap: If you are new to a job, avoid dressing like you're heading to a picnic until you understand the company standards.

It's wiser to dress on the conservative side rather than showing up underdressed. Check with HR or a colleague to determine what exactly business casual means for your company.

During job interviews, always opt for the more formal version of business casual. Even if you show up and your interviewer is clad in shorts or a short skirt, that doesn't mean it would be appropriate for you to dress that way. During a job interview, you want to make a good impression, and part of that is dressing professionally. Here are outfits you shouldn't wear to a job interview, regardless of the dress code.

Maintain Consistency: If you wear professional and conservative outfits Monday through Thursday, don't show up Friday looking unrecognizable. That's true even if your office has "casual Fridays." On casual Fridays, you can dress down a bit. 

It's acceptable at many companies, for instance, to wear jeans. But opt for your best jeans, not a pair with stains or ripped cuffs. Your casual Friday outfit should still be formal enough that you can comfortably go to a surprise meeting with your boss or client. 

No matter what kind of company you work for, maintaining a consistent image helps to establish trust and credibility with you as an employee.

Consider Your Calendar: If you're meeting with clients or scheduling a business lunch, dress on the conservative side out of to respect the people you're meeting with; save the casual comfort for a time when you'll be in the office all day.

What Not to Wear When the Dress Code is Business Casual

When the dress code is business casual, it's not appropriate to wear your favorite old t-shirt, ripped jeans, ratty sneakers, or flip-flops. Remember the "business" part of business casual, and leave your old comfortable clothes at home; outfits should still be clean, pressed, and fit properly.

Avoid clothing with logos or potentially offensive words or graphics.

Men do not have the option to skip shaving or go without a belt. Women should not wear anything that's too tight, flowing, short, or low cut. Make sure that bra straps aren't visible. And it's a good idea to keep makeup natural and low-key

What to Wear When There's No Dress Code

What do you wear when there's no dress code at all, and almost anything goes? How casual is too casual? Here are tips for both men and women for what to wear to work and job interviews when there's no dress code at all.