Here’s What 'Business Casual' Really Means

The problem is, most people don't have a clear understanding of the different dress codes today.

Very few people actually know what business casual means.

"I've really tried to learn the art of clothes, because you don't sell for what you're worth unless you look good." —Lady Bird Johnson

Your boss invites you to a conference. He sends an email letting you know the dress code is "business casual." You haven't a clue what that means, so you take a chance and wear your new sundress and sandals.

You show up and you're completely underdressed. You're uncomfortable — and you worry about your boss feeling embarrassed, too.

"It is critically important to be aware of dress codes, understand what they mean, and follow them," says Darlene Price, president of Well Said, Inc., and author of "Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results." "Employees are obliged to comply with company standards. Oftentimes, that means maintaining a professional appearance in the office, at client sites, and any business functions."

Price says during her 20-plus years working as an executive coach, one of the most frequent career roadblocks she has observed is inappropriate dress in the workplace.

"Many highly intelligent, well-qualified, capable men and women are often disqualified or dismissed because 'they don't sell for what they're worth,'" Price says. "They've left the 'business' out of 'business casual' and the lack of professional appearance holds them back. It's frustrating, because clothing certainly does not determine one's actual competence and credibility; it does, however, influence others' perception of those qualities — and that reality impacts career opportunities."

For example, there is no general agreement on the definition of the term "business casual." "It depends on several factors including the industry, size of the company, number of employees, amount of interaction between employees and customers, geography, climate, culture, and average age of the workforce," Price says.

At most companies, however, the "business casual" dress code encourages employees to project a "professional, business-like image while enjoying the advantage of more casual and relaxed clothing," Price explains.

Appropriate business casual dress typically includes slacks or khakis, dress shirt or blouse, open-collar or polo shirt, optional tie or seasonal sport coat, a dress or skirt at knee-length or below, a tailored blazer, knit shirt or sweater, and loafers or dress shoes that cover all or most of the foot.

Below are examples of appropriate "business casual" outfits.


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