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What business casual really means

© Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design/Flickr

By Jacquelyn Smith, Samantha Lee, Business Insider

  • Business casual dress is typically defined as a professional, yet somewhat relaxed style.
  • However, definitions of what exactly constitutes as "business casual" can vary based on factors like company, climate, and culture.
  • No matter what, you'll always want to make sure you're dressing for success.

It's not always obvious what exactly "business casual dress" means. 

Generally, Oxford Dictionary defines the term as "a style of clothing that is less formal than traditional business wear, but is still intended to give a professional and businesslike impression." 

But what does that mean from a practical standpoint? Fashion and style are subjective, but it's still a crucial distinction to be able to make in the professional world. 

If you lean too hard on the "business" aspect, you could find yourself feeling stuffy and overdressed. And, of course, overemphasizing the "casual" part and is hardly ideal, either. You don't want to find yourself embarrassed and looking unprofessional in flip flops or sweatpants. 

"It is critically important to be aware of dress codes, understand what they mean, and follow them," said Darlene Price, president of Well Said, Inc., and author of "Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results." "Employees are obliged to comply with company standards. Oftentimes, that means maintaining a professional appearance in the office, at client sites, and any business functions." 

Price said during her 20-plus years working as an executive coach, one of the most frequent career roadblocks she has observed is inappropriate dress in the workplace. 

"Many highly intelligent, well-qualified, capable men and women are often disqualified or dismissed because 'they don't sell for what they're worth,'" Price told Business Insider. "They've left the 'business' out of 'business casual' and the lack of professional appearance holds them back. It's frustrating, because clothing certainly does not determine one's actual competence and credibility; it does, however, influence others' perception of those qualities - and that reality impacts career opportunities." 

The problem is, most people don't have a clear understanding of the different dress codes today. 

For example, there is in fact no general agreement on the definition of the term "business casual."

"It depends on several factors including the industry, size of the company, number of employees, amount of interaction between employees and customers, geography, climate, culture, and average age of the workforce," Price said. 

At most companies, however, the "business casual" dress code encourages employees to project a "professional, business-like image while enjoying the advantage of more casual and relaxed clothing," Price explained. 

Appropriate business casual dress typically includes slacks or khakis, dress shirt or blouse, open-collar or polo shirt, optional tie or seasonal sport coat, a dress or skirt at knee-length or below, a tailored blazer, knit shirt or sweater, and loafers or dress shoes that cover all or most of the foot.
Below are examples of appropriate "business casual" outfits.

© Samantha Lee/Business Insider



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