For as long as humans have been wearing clothing, the question “What should I wear?” has been a source of stressful uncertainty. Whether you’re fresh out of college or you’ve been a professional for decades, chances are that from time to time you stand in front of your closet scratching your head. When you hear the phrase “business casual,” the situation might become even tougher. After all, it seems like no two people would define business casual in the same way.
Here are some tips to give you confidence the next time you get ready to attend a business casual meeting.
What does business casual mean at a startup?
The meaning of business casual varies from workplace to workplace. Startups tend to be small and may have a more relaxed dress code than a big corporate business. Therefore, their definition of business casual for a man might be a nice pair of jeans and a button-up shirt without a tie, while they might expect women to wear dressy jeans and a nice blouse.
However, most people see business casual as being a bit more refined. If you’re not sure what the other folks at a meeting are going to be wearing, err on the side of caution rather than on the side of comfort. It is better to be overdressed than underdressed because what you’re wearing can send a loud message about your attitude and how you view the people you’re meeting with.
Never be embarrassed to ask your boss or your company’s HR manager how to dress business casual. If your company doesn’t have an official dress code in place, you’ll not only get an answer to your question, but you might also get your superiors to think about setting up a policy that everyone can access.
It’s also important to know whom you’ll be meeting with. If they’re from outside your company, explore their website and look for pictures. Notice how they’re dressed, so you can get an idea of what is acceptable to them.
Tips to make business casual easier for everyone
Whether you’re a man or woman, and whether you work for a corporate giant or a budding startup, the following advice can relieve some of your anxiety about dressing business casual:
- Bring backups. Storing a dressy blazer and an extra pair of shoes in your car gives you a quick way to change if you arrive at a meeting and find that you’re a little underdressed.
- Be confident. The other folks at the meeting might not care what you’re wearing unless you draw attention to it by waving subconscious flags such as constantly tugging at your clothes.
- Make sure everything fits. Nothing can ruin an outfit like a pair of pants that are too tight or a shirt that is two sizes too big.
What does business casual mean for men?
Okay, guys, it’s time to look sharp. Unless you’ve been specifically told otherwise, you’ll look in place if you do the following:
Leave the suit at home
A suit might be seen as too dressy for a business casual meeting. However, you might wear one part of a suit. For example, wear a suit jacket if you don’t have a nice sport coat handy, or wear your dress shoes with your khakis. Don’t wear a tie or a vest, though; these pieces are too formal for a business casual setting.
Stick with subdued colors
Traditional business colors tend to be neutral: black, navy blue, gray, beige, etc. For the most part, you should stick with these same tones for your meeting. However, if you normally wear a bright shirt or a flashy tie to the office and no one has frowned on that, you’ll probably be able to get away with attention-grabbing hues.
Dress down your dress shirt
A dress shirt can be a great part of your business casual look, but it shouldn’t look too dressy. To dress it down a bit, you can leave a button or two undone at the top. Another option is to wear a thin sweater instead of a dress shirt. If your neck feels naked without a tie, opt to wear a scarf instead if the weather is right for it. Top off your look with a fitted blazer.
Step into the right shoes
Black dress shoes are an option for business casual, but they aren’t your only option. You could wear dress boots, too. Don’t be afraid to play with color. A pair of gray suede oxfords or navy brogues can give you an extra dash of style.
Pick the right pair of pants
Khakis are usually the safest choice for business casual meetings, but you might have permission to wear jeans. If that is the case, be sure the jeans are of a solid, dark wash and that they fit you well. Here are some other things to keep in mind when you’re searching for the right pair of pants:
- Slim-fit pants are fantastic because they flatter your shape, and they’re a departure from traditional wide-leg dress pants.
- Your pants should be a different color than your blazer.
- Corduroy or thin cotton pants might also fit the occasion, depending on the weather and the other circumstances around the meeting.
What is business casual for women?
Some of the above-mentioned tips for men also apply to women, and some tips for women are also applicable for some men. However, ladies tend to need to pay more attention to the following tips:
Know the difference between dressy and office-appropriate
Some clothes might seem dressy enough to wear to a business casual meeting, but they might not even be within the realm of business-appropriate clothes. For example, a low-cut top with lots of embellishments might be dressy, but if you would wear it to a club, it’s best to leave it at home in favor of something that is more conservative.
A bright pop of color or a single statement necklace might work well, but you don’t want to overwhelm your outfit. If you’re in doubt about an item of clothing or an accessory, leave it at home and choose something simpler.
Go with closed-toe shoes
Unless your office’s dress code specifically makes allowance for open-toe shoes, stick with low-heeled pumps, flats, or booties that have a closed toe. If you are allowed to show off your toes, don’t wear any sandals that you would take to the beach. Choose something in a neutral color that wouldn’t look strange with a pair of nylons.
Be picky about your pants
Khakis are a great choice for women as well as men. Bootcut and straight-leg pants are flattering on most body types and work well for business casual settings. If you’re allowed to wear jeans, keep them simple.
You don’t have to wear full-length pants. Cropped pants can be a great way to show off your shoes, and they could be more comfortable in the summer, too. You might even be able to get away with capris.
Whatever you do, don’t wear yoga pants or leggings and trick yourself into thinking that just because they’re black, other people won’t notice.
Choose the right skirts and dresses
If you favor skirts and dresses over pants and capris, keep the following in mind:
- Straight or pencil skirts are best for a business setting. However, an A-line skirt in a neutral color can also work well.
- A sheath dress with a belt around the middle to accentuate your shape can be an attractive option. Put it together with a casual blazer or cardigan and a pair of flats for a striking business casual look.
- Your skirt or dress should hit somewhere around your knee or slightly above. If you go with a shorter look, it might be wise to wear hosiery.
Top it off with the right top
Button-up blouses are a safe choice for business casual meetings. However, these tend to be made of thinner fabrics, so don’t wear a brightly colored bra under one if your top is white or another light color. Also, if you choose not to button the shirt all the way up, be careful not to show any cleavage.
Button-up blouses aren’t your only option. A nice sweater, a wrap-style top with a flattering V-neck, or a simple shell paired with the right cardigan can also work wonders.
Don’t have a panic attack the next time you hear the words “business casual.” Dressing correctly is simply a matter of asking the right questions and following a few simple fashion principles.