Career

What Does “Business Casual” Even Mean?

The power suit. That’s what comes to mind when you hear the words “dressing for success” in the workplace. Defined by the big shoulder pads of the eighties, the power suit was meant to convey that its wearer was to be taken seriously. But in today’s work milieu, the suiting mandate has given way to the ever-nebulous “business casual” dress code. Which begs the question: How do you define business casual for women in the workplace?

The answer isn’t very cut and dried: It depends on where you work, and to some extent, what your position is. The one thing that’s clear is that the rules have indeed shifted, and no one seems to have the same rulebook. Even Business Insider says, “very few people actually know what ‘business casual’ means.” Business casual for women varies by occupation; it can mean something entirely different in a law office than it does in a newsroom. And business casual in the fashion industry is likely everyone else’s idea of extremely dressed up, replete with runway-ready clothing, statement shoes and eye-catching accessories.

What is business casual for women, exactly?

Well, it depends on where you work and what you do, but according to The Street, “business casual” is defined as “no jeans, no shorts, no short dresses or skirts for women, optional ties for men and a rotation of button-downs or blouses.”

The Oxford dictionary defines business casual as: “Relating to or denoting a style of clothing that is less formal than traditional business wear, but is still intended to give a professional and businesslike impression.” 

The bad news is that, depending on your profession, jeans might be out. The good news is that if you are not a skirt or dress person, with business casual you are freed from gender-conforming dress codes and can wear trousers and button-down shirts all day long, every day.

Before you shop, familiarize yourself with the company’s culture

When you went into the office for the job interview, you were likely wearing your most dressy outfit (as they say, it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed). While at the office, take note: how is the boss dressed? How are the lower-ranking employees dressed? What is the culture of the workplace? Are there different dress codes for different departments? If in doubt, ask your boss, a new coworker or the HR person for advice. 

Dress for your age and position

If you’re the boss, and most of your underlings are coming to work in jeans and dressy tops, it might behoove you to kick it up just a notch. Replace the jeans with tailored pants. (Or wear your nicest jeans, but pair them with a chic jacket).

Mix and match basics

Get a couple of pairs of neutral-colored pants — black, dark grey, tan and white (if you’re feeling brave). These can be paired with a rotating cast of blouses or button-down shirts. The Balance Careers has a simple list of good clothing items for your closet; so does Indeed.com, which has a good rundown of business casual looks.

Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize

The Corporette calls this “wearing a third piece.” Jewelry, especially “statement pieces,” scarves and watches, can help transform the outfit you wore last Monday into a different look. So does layering a jacket over the sweater you wore on Friday. Voilà — a whole new outfit. 

Invest in solid shoes

Pairing those jeans with a blouse and a pair of sneakers might be great for kicking around town on Saturday. That same pair of jeans with that same blouse with a pair of low-heeled pumps or smart loafers says business casual. Dress up your nicest pair of cropped jeans with a great pair of loafers; paired with a button-down shirt, you’ll look perfectly business casual. The Corporette has a great list of tips, including a very sound one: Avoid “anything that makes a distracting sound,” which applies to shoes as well as jangly jewelry.

Tis the season

Linen suits for summer, heavier wool for winter. In summer, it might seem odd, but you’ll likely want to have a sweater or light jacket if you live in a very hot place, as the air conditioning will be dialed to frigid. In summer, be mindful to not wear dresses that are more appropriate for the pool than for the office, tempting as it may be to wear your lightest outfit. Look for a linen dress or linen pants to keep you cool and professional. Forbes has a good do’s and don’ts list for summer. 

Check out nonbinary/nongendered looks

If you’re nonbinary or just don’t feel comfortable in a dress, there are now many designers and stores aimed at people who prefer to keep their clothing gender-neutral, including GenderFreeWorld, which offers short and long sleeve shirts and trousers, among other wares. Company dress codes should not be gendered, as described by Forbes: “Dress codes should allow transgender employees to feel comfortable living full-time in the role consistent with their gender identity, and should not prevent them from maintaining a gender-neutral appearance.”

How to dress for

Every occupation has a different standard for what constitutes business casual. Here are some things to consider for your particular field.

Law and finance

Business casual at a law firm or financial company is going to seem pretty stuffy to an office of copywriters. Lawyers appearing in court are representing clients and are expected to look professional, so no jeans allowed. And in finance, when meeting with clients, many of whom are entrusting you with their life savings, looking like money is part of the job. FindLaw has a good list of do’s and don’t for business casual in a law firm. Take notice of how much more formal their guidelines are. For instance: “The growth of the denim industry has led to an increase in tailored denim pants. While denim is appropriate for more creative industries, jeans, tailored or not, are simply not appropriate in a legal setting.”

Politics

Like many professional women, women navigating the political sphere are often given mixed messages: “Seem strong. But not too strong. Dress nicely, but not too sexy.” One end of the spectrum, you have Michelle Obama, who garnered a lot of attention for her sartorial prowess, some of which would fall under the “business casual” umbrella. The First Lady was a huge proponent of independent American designers such as Jason Wu and Christian Siriano, as well as affordable off-the-rack fashion. Mrs. Obama’s style — which included chic sheath dresses that showed off her famously toned arms — bucked the trend of women politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel, who favor more conservative matching pantsuits in a rainbow of colors. Clinton’s collection of boxy pantsuits was too formal to be considered “business casual.” But Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s style might be described as business casual. Warren often pairs her brightly colored cardigans and jackets by designer Nina McLemore with a black shirt and black pants. She looks comfortable, but professional. Her outfit isn’t attention-grabbing, which means you’ll focusing on what she’s saying rather than what she’s wearing. 

Tech

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg famously has a closet of nothing but grey T-shirts; the late Apple founder Steve Jobs wore a black turtleneck every day. Part the reasoning behind wearing the same thing every day is practical, at least for Zuckerberg, who explained that he’d rather focus on his business than on what to wear. Both Zuckerberg and Jobs had the privilege of being able to wear clothes that were just casual casual in part because they are men, and in part because of being the boss. That very casual uniform has trickled down to software engineers. In tech, where “culture” is considered key, overdressing can seem like a faux pas. “If you show up at a startup where the CEO wears a hoodie, and you’re decked out in a suit and tie, you may come across as not being a good cultural fit,” writes coding boot camp website Coding Dojo

On the flip side, gendered clothing like skirts and blouses might take a backseat to clothes literally anyone can wear—trim jeans, button-down shirts, and yes, if the office culture allows it, a grey T-shirt. To get a sense of the variety, Tech.co has a fun look at the outfits worn more than 70 women who work at start-ups (ranging from the CEO to the intern).

All this being said, if you are the in-house programmer for a bank or a law firm, your dress code is going to mirror your workplace’s dress code. 

Media and PR

In journalism, the dress code varies by the newsroom. Journalists are not necessarily known for their style, but at big dailies, business casual might lean more toward business than casual for the higher ranking editors. (Button-down shirts, dress pants or skirts, practical shoes). Reporters, though, are taught to mirror their subjects or subject matter — fashion writers might dress far more directionally than sportswriters, who will likely be wearing jeans, sneakers, and T-shirts while covering the big game. White House Press reporters are sometimes requested by different administrations to dress more formally. Political and finance reporters will mirror their professional counterparts, in some cases bringing out the suit jacket, slacks, and a nice — but comfortable — shoe. 

Publicists — particularly those who are public-facing, might skew more business than casual, but as this New York Times profile of eight fashion publicists showed, it all depends on the position, the company and the workplace culture. The range of looks includes a fur coat, a track jacket, a turtleneck and a bow tie.

So what is business casual for women in the workplace? The answer is still: it depends.

Writer and editor Tricia Romano is the former editor-in-chief of the Stranger. She has been a staff writer at the Seattle Times and columnist for the Village Voice. She is currently working an oral history about the Village Voice for Public Affairs. You can also find her at Patreon.