Decoding The Business Casual Dress Code

Between semi-business casual, office casual, and casual Friday, no wonder things can get a little confusing. Don’t worry though: knowing how to dress for success is just a question of getting to know your workplace and its quirks.

office wearIf you’ve been at the same company for ten years or more, you’ve probably seen the dress code changes a lot, making things even more confusing. The 1990s saw a real turnaround alongside the dot com boom and the “tech scruffy” look—jeans, flip-flops, and tees were welcome in the most casual of environments.

But companies have started reigning in their relaxed attitudes for the past three years or so. Many companies have adopted a “situationally sensitive” dress code, in which all three different types—traditional, general, and casual—are used in different situations at the job. Often, employees are expected to keep a quick change of formal business clothes on hand for unexpected meetings, but they wear general clothes daily and casual on Fridays.

Sound complicated? Don’t worry—it’s not. For formal business attire, think formal corporate: dark suits, ironed dress shirts, ties, and polished, hard-soled shoes. Good suits when you need to go formal are ones of the Savile Row persuasion—inconspicuous but very well made—and well fitting. Don’t get tempted to try a three piece suit in a striking shade—formal business suits, even today, need to be in an expected shade. No surprises! No white socks, no extra buttons, badges, and pins.

General business attire is similar, but allows sports coats, dress trousers, and dress shirts worn with ties. You have a bit more creative license with your ties and accessories—let a little bit more color and personality come into your general business garb.

Our last category is business casual dress code. This is where things get the trickiest. It all depends on the business. If you are in a financial area or banking, then your casual is bit more on the formal side. Try dress pants, an ironed shirt, and a sports jacket, similar to general business wear. If you work in a tech field, then casual would mean chino slacks and a funky polo shirt. It’s about coordinating your separates to give a polished look.

With business casual, if you go for general attire or even a bit closer to formal business wear, you can get away with more in the style department. If you stray closer to the informal world, then you will need to conform to the world of business basics, to keep you from looking sloppy. Preferring simplicity is no crime, so try this season’s trendiest colored dress shirt and tie to stay looking up to date and avoiding looking boring.

With business casual dress code, there really isn’t an “everything goes” kind of attitude. You’ve got to somewhat fall in line to fill the expectations of business casual, but at least it doesn’t have to be a boring look. Don’t think that casual means a slide in style—it doesn’t. It’s a question of style adjustment and feeling more relaxed at work. Nothing wrong with that! Consider what makes you feel good—soft cotton dress shirts, bright ties, or an original belt buckle—and use this opportunity to express yourself.

If you’re an accessories guy at heart, then happily for you, you’ve got a great opportunity to have some fun with ties and cufflinks while staying within the business casual realm. Ties should still be of high quality and of tasteful design. Use a great pair of artsy or original cufflinks as a conversational piece, and to add a touch of flair to your otherwise casual wardrobe.

Some things to avoid include: going too formal and basic all together. You’ll stand out, but perhaps not in the best way. No one likes a stick-in-the-mud, so unless you’re the boss, try to accept casual for what it is—don’t fight it! If you take your spin on the casual look, you’ll stand out more than if you simply go formal.

Also avoid going too casual or looking scruffy. No matter what you choose to express your casual side, make sure that it is in great condition. Get your shoes shined and soles repaired regularly. Shoes are a status symbol that lurk in both business casual and business formal environments. If you are looking for a new pair to give yourself some extra confidence, a pair from English shoemaker like Loake will do the trick. They provide impressively beautiful shoes with a touch of personality, perfect for any dress code.

Business casual could be the best way to work up the corporate ladder. It’s a chance to give your look a personal touch, because (let’s face it) it’s a challenge to give business attire as much personality as possible.