Whether you’re interviewing for a new job or want to keep your personal brand looking sharp at the office, you’ll want to learn how to dress for a business casual environment. But what does business casual even mean? Simply put, business casual is any professional but relaxed outfit you wear to work. (This means you can—and should—leave the suit and tie, pantsuits and formal dresses at home.) I’m passionate about helping you look the part at your job, and with a few pointers you can step up your professional wardrobe without breaking the bank. Let’s take a closer look at what business casual looks like for men and women.
What Is Business Casual at Work?
Did you know dressing well can raise your confidence and even help you get a promotion at work? It’s true! And when we look at business casual outfits, you have a lot of room to create a look that works for the office and your own personality. Now, business casual can vary based on the industry you work in and even where you live. For example, the tech industry and advertising agencies in big cities might be more casual, but legal and financial workplaces could lean more business.
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But people, I don’t care if you’re tall or short or pear-shaped or square-shaped or young or old—anyone can look put together with a business casual look. If personal branding and style are new concepts for you or feel outside your comfort zone, don’t worry. You can do a lot with a business casual wardrobe to present a professional image.
Business Casual Rules to Follow
Before you start shopping, I want you to keep these four pointers in mind as you create or update your work wardrobe (without draining your wallet). These tips go for men and women:
1. Make sure your clothes are clean and in good condition.
If nothing else, the cleanliness and condition of your clothes set the foundation for the rest of your professional look. Make sure your pants aren’t ripped and your shirts aren’t stained, and iron out wrinkles before heading out the door. You don’t need to wear designer duds to look put together at the office—but make sure the clothes you have are in good shape.
2. Choose clothes that fit properly.
Like I said earlier, I don’t care what size you wear . . . choosing clothes that fit your body is a surefire way to clean up your closet and give your business casual look a boost. Wearing clothes that are too tight or too big can be distracting. (You don’t want a coworker worrying about a button popping off your shirt and hitting them in the eye!) If it’s in your budget, hire a tailor to shorten pants that are too long or take in a jacket that’s a little loose around the waist. Size up or down if last year’s skirt or polo shirt simply doesn’t fit anymore.
3. Think about sticking to a color palette.
I like to keep things simple, and that means wearing clothes that all go together. Some people love a neutral look and keep their closet full of white, navy blue, black and gray clothes. If your industry allows you to be a little more creative, feel free to play with bold patterns and colors—as long as your outfits follow the first and second rules I mentioned. Remember, you can have a personality and keep your outfits professional!
4. Steer clear of offensive words or images.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but never wear clothes with questionable slogans or inappropriate images. Revealing rips and tears or t-shirts with obnoxious graphics aren’t professional and don’t belong in a business casual setting. Just don’t do it.
5. Make sure you’re well-groomed.
No, this isn’t clothing-related exactly . . . But when you’re getting ready for work, make sure you’re groomed and presentable. Aside from the basics, like combing your hair, brushing your teeth, and showering, putting on a light spritz of cologne or perfume and an accessory like a watch or earrings can put the finishing touches on your look. (A word of advice: Don’t go overboard with the fragrance—your coworkers might be sensitive or allergic to smells.) And ladies, see what my friend Rachel Cruze has to say about doing beauty on a budget—she knows more about hair and makeup than I do!
Now that we’ve got some ground rules, let’s take a closer look at how men and women can dress for a business casual workplace.
What Is Business Casual for Men?
Gentlemen, hear me out. If you’re going to an interview and want to impress the hiring manger, or if you’re already working a job in a business casual office, don’t wear a full suit and tie. It’s overkill and can say one of two things: You’re either clueless about the culture, or you’re trying too hard. Instead, I want you to relax and embrace a business casual look. Go for dark jeans or chinos, an open-collar button-down shirt, and a sweater or sport coat. Depending on the workplace, you can probably get away with clean sneakers. I like to recommend a nice pair of leather shoes, like Oxfords or pull-on boots. And if the office is more on the casual side, you can opt for a clean, fitted t-shirt and pair of slacks instead.
And here are a few bonus tips: Tuck in your shirt. Wear a belt. Make sure your shoes are shined or free of dirt and scuffs. Whether they’re dress shoes, boots or sneakers, they should be clean and in good shape. If the dog chewed them up, don’t wear them! If your kid colored on them, don’t wear them! Following these basic rules makes a big difference.
What Is Business Casual for Women?
Ladies, you tend to have more clothing options to choose from than us guys. But the same rules apply when you’re deciding what to wear to an interview or stepping up your everyday style at work. Make sure your outfits fit well and are appropriate for the office culture. When you’re going for a business casual look for women, you don’t need to dress to the nines in formal dresses or pantsuits and high heels.
If your office is more on the business side of business casual, a dark-wash jean (without holes) with a short-sleeve blouse and blazer is a great combo. Pair that with some ballet flats or a wedge heel. If your office is more casual, consider a sundress with a denim jacket and sneakers. Again, you might need to make some adjustments depending on where you work and the season, but these are good examples to build on. Keep your perfume light and add an accessory, like a statement necklace or bracelet, to top off your business casual look.
Here’s the key: If you’re still not sure what to wear, talk to HR. Ask them to describe what business casual looks like in your office.
What Is Not Considered Business Casual?
Business casual is clean, professional and versatile. But a few things are just unacceptable when it comes to dressing for an office or professional workplace. No matter your industry, age, location or job title, there are a few things that just don’t belong in a work setting. Here’s what business casual is not:
- Athleisure or athletic gear: Keep your jerseys on the field and yoga pants in the yoga studio.
- Revealing, low-cut or see-through pieces: Save your party clothes for Saturday night when you’re off the clock!
- Loungewear or pajamas: Your 9-to-5 isn’t your 9 a.m. university class. Dress your age—and your wage—and leave your pajamas at home. And if you’re working from home, putting on real pants will help you feel like the professional you are.
- Formalwear or cocktail attire, like tuxedos or ballgowns: I love to get spiffy when the occasion calls, but rocking a tux on a normal Tuesday isn’t a good look for work.
Move Forward at Work With a New Resumé
So, you’ve mastered the business casual look, and you’re ready to show up to work or find a new job with a fresh boost of confidence. Does your resumé match your newfound confidence and professionalism? Now it’s time to make your resumé stand out so you can get one step closer to landing your dream job. Check out my free Resumé Guide for a simple, five-step process to create a standout resumé. This guide will help you get the hiring manager’s attention, land an interview, and take the next step on your path to doing work that matters. Check it out!