Gone are the days when professional dress codes were the norm. In their place are business casual offices and work-from-home outfits that prioritize comfort. As businesses and employees transition to a more casual, sometimes remote work environment, some are left wondering, what exactly is business casual attire? If you’re not sure where the current rules on business casual stand, you’re not alone. Read ahead for a guide on what business casual means by today’s standards, along with some examples.
A business professional dress code is relatively simple to define: a suit and tie, pantsuit or professional dress or skirt. Business casual attire can be trickier to define and can vary by company, industry or even region. But regardless, more employees are looking for the option to dress more casually at work.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “look good, feel good.” Cliche as these are, a study by ScienceDirect has proven that the clothes you wear can influence your psychological processes. This phenomenon is known as enclothed cognition.
Since an employee’s mindset and performance can be linked to how they feel about their appearance, employers are giving their staff more freedom to wear what they want.
As a result, “casual dress” has become commonplace in many businesses. Plus, as the pandemic upended previous work structures, rules for professional attire changed as well. Some companies have reevaluated their dress codes in the world of remote and hybrid work. However, rules still vary across different company cultures.
Valerie Rice, a brand builder, content creator and trend analyst, explained the differences by industry and company. She said that creative agencies, tech startups and fashion and film industries always lean toward a more relaxed and creative style, whereas industries such as legal and finance tend to be more traditional in attire. However, she said that even the traditional industries are loosening up.
In some cases, she said, “employees can wear jeans in the corporate offices every day, not just on the traditional Casual Friday. The exception is if employees are client-facing ― then chinos, not jeans.”
Employers and employees should understand that there can be regional differences in what it means to be business casual. For example, Rice said that on the West Coast, chinos and a bomber jacket may count as business casual attire, but the East Coast tends to be more conservative.
Regardless of the specific clothing permitted, a business casual dress code is meant to give employees the freedom to wear comfortable ― albeit work-appropriate ― clothing so they can focus on work performance instead of business attire.
“A business casual dress code leaves room for an employee’s personal taste while maintaining a professional forefront,” said Wendy Webster, finance and human resources (HR) manager at RWH Travel. “This allows for things like a paisley blazer, a quirky blouse or something completely different. The need for ties and pantsuits doesn’t exist, but the outfit shouldn’t look out of place in the boardroom.”
“Business casual” doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all definition. It depends on the organizational and industry culture.
What constitutes business casual attire may differ slightly across industries and regions. To get some clarity, we consulted with several business owners, stylists and HR professionals. Based on our conversations, we created a list of clothing generally considered business casual when working in an office.
Business casual attire may include:
Depending on the time of year, you can mix and match some of the articles of clothing listed above to create a business casual look that will blend comfort with style quite well. Webster offered the following examples.
“In the colder months, a classic business casual look is to wear a dress shirt under a plain sweater or cardigan,” Webster said. “Tastefully patterned blouses and tops are ideal for achieving a business casual look as are silk scarves and throws.”
Experiment with mixing and matching different articles of clothing and accessories to find your style. Ultimately, you should go for a professional look that still incorporates a bit of your unique style and the personal brand you want to get across.
Unacceptable business casual clothing can be another gray area. What is acceptable at your workplace may depend on your industry, region, company or role. The confusion has only increased as remote work has gained popularity.
“Unacceptable business casual attire is anything that may be seen as inappropriate attire determined by the specific employer,” said Rice. “Depending on if you are a junior staff or seasoned manager, attire may mean different things.”
When choosing your clothing, err on the side of caution. It is always better to be overdressed than underdressed, even if you’re working remotely. Yvonne Cowser Yancy, Chief Administrative Officer at Understood, said that unacceptable clothing generally consists of any outfits you would wear to a picnic, beach, camping trip, yoga class, gym or nightclub.
After consulting with her and several other business owners, HR professionals and stylists, we created a general list of clothing to avoid in any workplace:
“You need to remember that business casual attire is not dressing up your everyday clothes; it’s dressing down your work clothes,” said Webster. “For this reason, you should never come in wearing trainers or casual-style boots. Even if you wear these for the walk to work, keep another pair of shoes at work to change into when you get to the office.”
Business casual attire is less about dressing up your casual clothes and more about dressing down your professional wardrobe.
One of the most common questions you might have when putting together a business casual outfit for days at the office is, “Can I wear jeans?” The answer depends on who you ask. When speaking with experts, we received mixed answers to this question.
As with the rest of your attire, this will depend on the specific company you work for. For example, if you work in a professional, client-facing role, it is unlikely that your employer will want you wearing jeans to work. However, if you work in a fintech startup company where the culture is more relaxed, a pair of well-fitted blue jeans may be appropriate. Identify what is appropriate at your workplace and match your wardrobe to its level of professionalism.
“If you look around your workplace and are not at all resembling your workplace’s level of dress (not style), you may want to think again,” said Rice.
There are many advantages to remote work ― and an increase in productivity is only the start. Many employees are thrilled to be able to work at home in comfortable attire such as athletic pants. But in a cameras-on world, it’s still important to be presentable, even if you’re in your living room. Plus, since your clothes can affect your mood, getting out of your pajamas can be important for getting into a work mindset, even at home.
While a business casual policy for remote workers may be highly relaxed, it can still help to have some guidelines in place. Similar to an in-office business casual policy, your remote attire rules will differ based on your company culture and industry. And, of course, it may change by context as well.
For example, guidelines for dress during internal meetings will likely differ from those for client-based calls. That said, you can wear many of the above outfits from the waist up and relax in sweatpants that aren’t in camera view. This way, you can strike a balance between comfort and professionalism.
The rules for business casual attire have undergone a significant overhaul amid transitions to remote or hybrid work. While there are certain guidelines all companies should follow, your organization’s business casual dress code will depend on your company norms and job functions.
You should create a policy that fits your exact needs rather than trying to fit your company to previously widespread dress code standards. This can help everyone be clear on what’s expected whether you’re managing a remote team or in-person employees. With these clear guidelines, everyone can put their best foot forward. This way, your team can spend less time worrying about what to wear and, instead, focus on getting the job done.