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The unspoken language of business casual clothing

August 30, 2022 - 19 min read

work-colleagues-having-a-meeting-business-casual

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What is business casual attire?

Why business casual dress codes matter

How to dress smart casual

Extra dress code tips

What if there’s no dress code?

Dressing business casual for a job interview

The art of being yourself

Clothes are a fundamental part of cultural and social identity. We all have our informal “uniforms” in everyday life. We have casual outfits for trips to the grocery store, dresses and tuxedos for fancy nights out, and pajamas when it’s time to wind down. And at work, clothes communicate information and influence people’s impression of us. 

But, ever since the pandemic catapulted the world of remote work, elastic waistbands, and loose sweatshirts have become the norm. If you’re heading back into the office, you might want a refresher on how to dress. 

Pre-pandemic, an article like this would have been full of advice on when to wear khakis, jeans, polo shirts, and t-shirts. But now, our world of work has radically changed since the pandemic. We’ve paused to re-examine our values and our purpose. Now, more than ever, people and companies need to create work environments where every person can show up as their whole selves.  

Of course, there are plenty of nuances to consider — and what we know to be “business casual” isn’t as black-and-white as it once was. Yes, some places may still be hanging on to their pleated pants for dear life. But, in other companies, it’s not quite time to abandon your band tee yet.

For candidates and job seekers interviewing, it might raise all sorts of questions on how to make a good impression. What do you wear for a virtual interview? If you’re meeting your team in person for the first time after working remotely for months, what do you wear? 

Sure, clothes are important. But for us at BetterUp, it’s beyond just fabric and appearance. We care deeply about helping to create a psychologically safe workforce where people can show up as their whole selves. We care about making sure all people feel a deep sense of belonging.

We care about helping people reach their fullest potential — and yes, that starts with waking up and getting dressed in the morning.  Here's our guide on business casual attire to prepare for your first day back at the office.

 

What is business casual attire?

Business casual refers to clothing that hovers between “casual” and “ formal.” The goal is to present a professional image while maintaining a laid-back aura.

But companies — just like people — operate differently. This has created some tension in the business community. On the one hand, it’s important for employees to feel comfortable at work. But it’s also important to look presentable, especially if your company regularly deals with external clients or the public.

Some industries, like tech, are notorious for their laidback, hoodie-and-sweats reputation. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg normalized the shirt-and-jeans aesthetic that is now common in Silicon Valley. His style reflects his company’s dress code, valuing comfort over traditional professionalism. 

Other companies, however, might encourage less casual wear. There are nuances to what each profession may wear, from medical scrubs to a sports jacket. For example, it’d be a little surprising to see a lawyer show up to a client meeting in a hoodie.

Much like how the future of work is rapidly changing and carries layers of complexity, so is business casual. Traditionally speaking, companies who still carry on the business casual legacy may prefer attire like: 

  • Khakis
  • Skirts
  • Blouses
  • Polo shirts
  • Dress shoes 
  • Dress slacks
  • Sport coats
  • Button-up dress shirts
  • Cardigans
  • Turtlenecks

The trick is finding the sweet spot that works for your organization. If you work at a graphic design agency, let your creativity fly! Funky blazers and colorful tees could work for you in these environments. But if you work at a bank, you’re better off leaving the ripped jeans at home. 

And sometimes, it’s situation-dependent. For example, I used to work at an agency. On days when I didn’t have client-facing meetings, I wore more casual attire. But if I had a client meeting, even though our agency attire was fairly laidback, I threw on a sweater and nice pants. 

Navigating your company culture is difficult and intimidating. BetterUp can help. Our coaches can offer guidance on everything from clothing to how to speak up in meetings. Together, we can help you find your place at work.

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Why business casual dress codes matter

There are a few reasons why clothing matters in the workplace:

  • They represent your company. As an employee, you represent your organization in your day-to-day interactions with the world. You see people everywhere, from public transit to the sandwich spot up the street from your office. You may also deal with clients and the public regularly. These people will judge you and the organization you work for — and your clothes are part of that.
  • They build team spirit. Following your organization’s dress code can help you feel like you belong. If your team values professionalism, you’ll gain their respect by dressing professionally. If your team is more casual, reflecting that culture will help you earn social capital.
  • They can affect your work performance. In a 2015 study, researchers found that formal clothing enhanced people’s cognitive function. They attributed this phenomenon to the sense of empowerment and confidence from dressing well.
  • It’s a psychological safety net. Employees who are allowed to dress how they want feel empowered in their workplace. It encourages free expression and an open flow of ideas. It also allows people to bring their whole selves to work, which helps people stay comfortable, present, and engaged.
group-of-work-colleagues-business-casual

How to dress smart casual

Ideally, you would have a sense of your company’s vibes before your first day. If you visited the office, what were people wearing at their desks? How were your interviewers dressed?

Worst case scenario, you can always ask prior to your first day. An HR person or a hiring manager will happily tell you to dress comfortably if that’s the vibe they’re going for.

More traditional work environments will err on the side of “smart casual.” This is your typical khaki-and-dress-shirt aesthetic, but there’s some room for variation. If your HR rep says to dress “business casual,” it’s better to overdress on your first day than to underdress.

That doesn’t mean showing up in a full suit, nor does it mean wearing a band tee. It just means sticking to some staples until you find the balance that suits your organization. When in doubt, bounce some ideas off of your coach.

With some personalized guidance, your coach can help consult on what might be best for your work environment.

The essentials: what your closet can’t lack

Here are some basic pieces that fit the business casual aesthetic. As you get to know your company, you can dress any of these items up or down. For example, you can make a clean t-shirt look more professional with a well-fitting blazer. Alternatively, you can tone down a button-up with a clean pair of jeans.

businesswoman-at-the-office-business-casual

Let’s have a look at the baseline business casual wardrobe:

  • Shirts. When going pure business-casual, guys can stick to a long-sleeved button-downs and collared shirts. Short-sleeved polos can also be acceptable when it's warm out, but it's worth checking with human resources first. 
  • Blazers and jackets. A well-cut blazer or jacket can add a layer of professionalism to your business casual outfit. These are great for dressing up for an important meeting. Also, if you discover you’re overdressed, you can easily dress down by taking it off. Neutral colors like grey, blue, and black are good to keep on rotation. Brighter colors can also work, as long as they’re versatile enough for different outfits.
  • Sweaters. You should probably leave the hoodie at home. But fine-knit sweaters over a collared shirt are a good baseline. Thicker sweaters can work for a winter business casual look or to combat a powerful air-conditioning system.
  • Shoes. Oh, shoes. The options are endless. The best business casual shoes don’t come with a black-and-white answer. Generally, it’s pretty safe to go for closed-toe shoes, heels, flats, or loafers unless you’re certain other kinds of footwear are appropriate.

    Sandals and sneakers may also be a good option, depending on your organization. It all depends on your company culture. It’s a safe bet to see what types of shoes other folks wear before you show up on your first day in your Nikes. 
  • Pants. Save the baggy basketball shorts, workout leggings, and sweatpants for the gym. Dress pants, chinos, corduroy, or suit pants are more appropriate here. Tailored or wide-legged dress pants, chinos, or suit pants will always be a good fit. Depending on your organization's dress code, a clean pair of jeans could also work.
  • Skirts and dresses. Is a dress business casual? Yes, it can be. Same with skirts. Length and tightness might vary depending on your office, but knee-length or lower is always a safe bet.
  • Blouses and button-downs. A flowy, nicely-fitted blouse or button-down will always work for a business casual setting.

Extra dress code tips

Here are some extra things to think about as you plan your wardrobe:

  • Be consistent. Most offices will have some version of casual Fridays. But, if you dress conservatively and professionally the rest of the week, don’t show up on Friday in a ripped t-shirt and jeans. You should always be formal enough to attend an unexpected meeting if you have to.
  • Check your calendar. Be mindful of events that require extra professionalism. If you’re meeting a client, your boss, or have a different important rendezvous, keep the casual clothes at home.
  • Read the virtual room. If you’re working remotely, you may be accustomed to professional on top, and sweatpants on the bottom. Use your good judgment to assess what types of clothing you need for your virtual work day.

For example, at BetterUp, we’re a pretty laidback organization. Some folks wear blouses, blazers, and sweaters to our remote meetings. Others wear t-shirts, sweatshirts, and flannels. You name it. Your manager and your coach will be able to help provide some guidance on navigating the virtual world of work, too.

smiley-businessman-on-a-meeting-business-casual

What if there’s no dress code?

If it’s your first day at work and you found out there’s no dress code, you might be at a loss. On the one hand, it can feel completely liberating. On another, you don’t want to break the unwritten rules of the office. Here are some tips until you get a sense of your company’s preferences:

  • Wear what makes you confident at work. Don’t be afraid to express your individuality. As long as you look polished and put together, you should be fine. Look at your company’s social media or other employee events to see how people are dressed. If you love someone’s outfit, imitation is the best form of flattery. They won’t know they were your inspiration. 
  • Dress as you would in a restaurant. What would you wear to a Sunday brunch or casual dinner with friends? You probably want to look nice but still feel comfortable. Use this as your guideline for dressing in a casual workplace.
  • Accessorize. You might feel uneasy about showing up in a tee. Spruce things up with a scarf, earrings, or a casual blazer over your shirt. This will help you seem more professional while keeping a relaxed vibe.
  • Choose a nice sneaker. Dress shoes are likely too much, but flip-flops are too little. Instead, aim for a clean pair of sneakers or sandals. 
  • Lean into athleisure. Many athletic brands have high-quality, clean-cut clothes that are comfortable around the office. If you style yourself tactfully, you can make it work.
  • Add a splash of color. Prints, textures, and colors can add personality to your outfit. This would work well in a casual office.

Then, as you get a sense of the organization’s work culture, you can start bringing more of your personal style to work.

Dressing business casual for a job interview

And then there’s the dreaded “business casual interview.” It’s noble that the company wants you to relax. But, as we’ve learned, business casual is open to interpretation. How do you know you’re interpreting things correctly?

Well, in this scenario, it’s always better to err on the side of overdressing. 

Try putting on a suit and dress down from there. For men, simply removing a tie could be good enough.

businessmen-using-digital-tablet-business-casual

For women, try adding color to your outfit. You can do this with an accent piece like a scarf, or you can put on a blazer over a neutral dress or a black skirt and a colorful top.

Remember, this is the interviewers’ first impression of you. Show them that you’re a put-together individual with a strong sense of taste and professionalism — and a hint of personality.

The art of being yourself

Gone are the days when business casual meant plain shirts and khaki pants. There’s so much more room for personal expression now, so don’t be afraid to add your personal flair

But at the end of the day, it’s just clothes. They can make you feel confident and comfortable with your team but they’re not an indicator of your performance, contributions, or value to the team. And we both know that you work hard.

Your main contributions are your core competencies, collaboration, and work ethic. Looking like a boss is just the cherry on top.

BetterUp can help you thrive at your workplace. If you’re willing to put in the work, our coaches can make sure your work looks as good as yours. Whether you’re gunning for that next leadership job or just want to hone your networking skills, we can help you get there.

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Published August 30, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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