What exactly is "business casual"?

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: January 17, 2012

Dear Annette,

What exactly is "business casual"? I usually wear suits, but I feel overdressed now that my company has instituted this new, more relaxed dress code. Any hints?

Too formal in Philly

Dear Formal,

Hosts and fashion police like to throw out dress code terms and phrases as if they were an actual Thing. But most of these combinations of words are made up, virtually meaningless, just thrown together to get someone off the hook. "Semiformal." "Cool casual." "Relaxed retro." "Country club." And at auditions, "Wear something you can move in." I hate when I get dressed in the morning and can't move.

Most men really wish an invitation would say, "Wear your navy sportcoat with your khaki slacks, a crisp white shirt, and that print tie you got for your birthday last week." Many women long for cues such as, "Little black dress" or "Evening, but cut above the knee." But alas, despite the promise of mass customization, many of us still have to pick out our own clothes. It's true in our social lives, and it's true at work.

To my ear, "business casual" is the most intriguing phrase of the new economy. Such an oxymoron. After all, business is no more casual than Vanity Fair's Oscar party is optional.

First of all, don't stop buying suits. Nothing makes you feel quite as fabulous at an important meeting or power breakfast as a dark suit and smart tie. It's almost impossible to overdress for work unless you show up in evening Versace. And every executive should keep a spare suit and clean shirt on hand in the office in case Ted Koppel shows up unexpectedly with a camera crew.


Business Casual "Do"Business Casual "Don't"
Clothes that cover youPeekaboo!
Shirt  with a collar (men)T-shirt
Socks or stockingsSneakers; flip-flops
BlackToo much of any other color
Clothes that fitTight things; baggy things
Sportcoat and slacks; suit if you like (men)Jeans (company-specific)
Regalia of your company, its partners, or hip businessesRandom advertisements
Not quite casual enoughToo casual

Nevertheless, if you feel out of place in your suit for everyday work, take small steps as you begin to dress down. For example, remove your jacket when you arrive in the morning, then later, roll up your sleeves. Eventually you can switch to jacket and trousers, and put the tie in a desk drawer.

In the end, you should wear whatever feels appropriate. If you are comfortable in a suit, then continue wearing suits.

Whatever your personal Philosophy of Style, wear it with confidence and panache and the results will be, well, fabulous. Good luck!

Stay fabulous,