What does business casual mean for women?

Dressing "business casual" means staying professional with full coverage and neutral colors. But it also leaves room for something more expressive, like a jewel-toned shawl.
Dressing "business casual" means staying professional with full coverage and neutral colors. But it also leaves room for something more expressive, like a jewel-toned shawl.
Aidon/Photodisc/Getty Images

When it comes to grocery shopping on a Saturday or getting ready for a night out, wear what makes you happy. But in the office, you don't want to raise any eyebrows. We're talking about income here.

If ever there were a time to be concerned with appearances, it's during working hours. Fair or not, employees, bosses and co-workers tend to be judged by what they wear. Torn jeans and flip flops? Sloppy. Three-piece suit on casual Friday? Nose in the air. Lace halter top? Must've gotten lost on the way to the club.

Both sexes can fall prey to business fashion faux pas, but women face some added risks. Dressing for work was easy enough when business suits were the norm -- hard to go wrong with a uniform that's respectable, neat and serious with the occasional addition of stylish. Sending the right message was as easy as shopping in the "career woman" section.

These days, picking out an outfit is a lot more complicated. First, is the workplace business formal or business casual? If it's business casual, is that "casual" as in "pantyhose not required with that skirt," or "casual" as in jeans? And if it is "casual" as in "jeans," does that mean anything goes?

And in the workplace, does "anything goes" really mean anything goes?

More often than not, it doesn't. With all the business-casual work environments out there -- in 2006, 60 percent of respondents to a human-resources study said they dressed casually at least one work day a week -- you'd think there would be some sort of standard definition of what "business casual" means [source: Armour]. Clearly, though, with more and more companies implementing dress codes or eliminating "business casual" entirely due to employees' inappropriate attire, some explanation is required [source: Armour].

In this article, we'll define "business casual" as it applies to the female worker. We'll see what's acceptably casual in the workplace, what should be saved for the weekend, and which styles are gray areas that require a judgment call.

Style may be in the eye of the beholder, but "business casual" is in the eye of the boss. And in most cases, the boss has a particular look in mind.

What to Wear

A bright blouse will pop against neutral-toned slacks or a skirt, but its modest cut will keep the look professional.
A bright blouse will pop against neutral-toned slacks or a skirt, but its modest cut will keep the look professional.
Comstock Images/Jupiterimages/Getty Images

You're starting a home search and want to get preapproved for a mortgage, so you head to the bank. There are two lenders available to sit down with you and discuss your finances. One is wearing short shorts, a halter top, and espadrilles. The other is wearing a navy blue knee-length skirt, a silk blouse and leather heels.

Unless you're a 14-year-old boy, you're probably going to head for the one in the blue skirt.

Like it or not, in the business world, image matters, and clothing is a big component of that. It's one of the first things clients, co-workers and interviewers notice. It says something.

What it says is up to the dresser, and not everybody wants to say the same thing. There are, though, a few traits almost all employees want to project: hard-working, professional, plays well with others, or some variation on those themes. Achieving that in business-casual attire is pretty straightforward:

  • Keep it covered. No matter what your style, business casual pretty much never means "business sexy." Long skirts, long pants and higher necklines are safe bets. Knee-length skirts are fine, too, as are dressy capris.
  • Keep it neutral. That doesn't have to mean head-to-toe tan. Black, gray, brown, navy blue, ivory, khaki and taupe are all good color choices, and there's no harm in throwing in a standout accessory to spice up the look -- a pink scarf, yellow headband or red leather belt can make a great statement paired with blue pants and a simple white button-down.
  • Keep it classic. Ultra-trendy garb is more of a weekend thing. In business-casual land, timeless is best. Which is not to say you shouldn't be stylish. A pair of wide-leg dress pants can be as chic as a pair of skinny jeans.

There are, of course, gray areas and exceptions to the rules, and most of them have to do with the industry you're dressing for. If you're heading to an ad agency or a fashion magazine, ultra-hip and trendy is perfectly acceptable, even desirable. And then there's the big denim question, which is always a bit wishy-washy. IBM doesn't care what its people wear -- jeans, sandals, shorts, it's all fine [source: Armour]. General Motors nixes jeans in its business-casual code, while the NBA is fine with "dressy jeans" only [source: Armour].

Of course, one woman's Pam is another woman's Angela: "Classic," "neutral" and "covered" can be relative terms. Sometimes dressing appropriately can be easier if you know precisely what's inappropriate.

What to Avoid

This shopper could very well be on a lunch break from her business casual workplace judging by her demure cardigan, pressed khakis and kitten heels.
This shopper could very well be on a lunch break from her business casual workplace judging by her demure cardigan, pressed khakis and kitten heels.
Thinkstock/Siri Stafford

In the official dress code for a San Diego business called Five Points Capital, visible thong underwear is banned [source: Armour]. This seems to indicate that at least one woman has, at least one time, shown her G-string at work.

Granted, it was probably an accidental result of the low-rise jean trend, but that brings us to a good point: If your low-rise jeans reveal thong underwear when you sit down, either don't wear those jeans to work or wear a very long top. An exposed bottom can make some people uncomfortable and other people drool, neither of which is ideal in a workplace.

Some other business-casual no-nos besides exposed undergarments include:

  • Short shorts
  • Mini skirts
  • Skirts with high slits
  • Halter tops
  • Strapless tops
  • Anything skin-tight
  • Anything see-through
  • Anything midriff-baring
  • Torn jeans
  • Flip-flops
  • Worn sneakers
  • Exposed cleavage
  • Old T-shirts or ones with offensive images or giant logos
  • Baseball caps
  • Spandex

If there's a question in your mind about whether a look is "business casual," ask yourself a few questions:

  • Would I wear this to meet my boyfriend's mother for the first time?
  • Would I wear this clubbing?
  • Would I wear this to sleep?
  • Would I wear this to do yard work?
  • Would I wear this to a costume party?

If the answers are yes, followed by four no's, there's a pretty good chance the outfit is "business casual." When in doubt, it's a good idea to err on the side of caution.

Or, just ask human resources, your boss or your supervisor for a copy of the dress code or, if there's nothing official, at least advice on what's expected. A girl's gotta eat, and fashion is a silly reason to get fired.

For more information on business casual and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Armour, Stephanie. "'Business casual' causes confusion." USA Today. July 10, 2007.http://www.usatoday.com/money/workplace/2007-07-09-business-casual-attire_N.htm
  • Business casual attire. Virginia Tech Career Services.http://www.career.vt.edu/Jobsearc/BusCasual.htm
  • Chensvald, Christian M. "Five Rules of Style for the Business-Casual Workplace." BNET.http://www.bnet.com/2403-13068_23-212795.html
  • Lorenz, Kate. "Business Casual Tips for Summer." CareerBuilder.http://www.careerbuilder.com/Article/CB-707-The-Workplace-Business-Casual-Tips-for-Summer/?ArticleID=707&cbRecursionCnt=1&cbsid=98a7b696a8df4e18a8c658a6ad5ed686-324371914-ww-6&ns_siteid=ns_us_g_business_casual
  • Student Perspective: What Exactly is "Business Casual"? University of Oregon Career Center.http://career.uoregon.edu/blog/students/2009/03/student-perspective-what-exactly-business-casual