Business Casual: Building a Successful Wardrobe

by mhoppal

Some people are gifted with fashion awareness and stylish sensibility. Others can learn to fake it with a few simple staples and rules.

What is Business Casual?

According to a Gallup poll, business casual is the most common dress style - with 43% of non-self-employed workers wearing it. Because of its widespread nature, the style has multiple or abstract definitions. Here is a brief, broad summary of what it means to dress business-casual:

Business casual is a hybrid look between formal and uniform. The business casual look is defined as not being a uniform - such as what is worn in most of the service industry - and not a look presentable to high-ended client meetings. Rather, it is between, conveying a professional appearance so as not to be distracting to co-workers, but not so professional that it would be worn to a formal event.

Business Casual for Men

For men, the look often includes a tucked in, button-up shirt (either short- or long-sleeved), cotton slacks or trousers, dark socks and modest shoes (such as loafers), and a matching belt. If you want a business casual look, this is the standard route to go.

Occasionally, a blazer or sportcoat is appropriate, as is a suit jacket, but this is only determined by the leader or manager of the group. If jackets are worn, generally, so are neckties.

For men, the rules are:

  • Shower and shave.
  • Keep your hair, fingernails, and skin looking clean and cared for.
  • Do not wear too much cologne.
  • Keep accessories to only a belt and tie.
  • Keep jewelry to a metal watch or minimalist bracelet and your wedding ring.
  • Piercings should not be overbearing (though they are permitted as of recently, it is not recommended that you show your, say, non-ear piercings). 
  • Nor should tattoos. If you have visible tattoos, a cover is a good idea, though this rule can easily be bent depending on your client.

Business Casual for Women

For women, the look will include:

  • A fitted button-up shirt (though not always tucked in) or sweater set.
  • Slacks or a knee-length or longer skirt.
  • Appropriate shoes (usually flats or a short heel - very rarely, open-toed).
  • A conservative purse (small and in a neutral color).
  • Another possibility is a down-toned dress with a knee-or-longer skirt length and not too low-cut in the top.

Womens' rules include all the cleanliness rules men have, with the caveat that they are allowed more jewelry. For example, women can easily wear flashy bracelets (usually metal) and necklaces. Depending on your profession and how personal you want your relationship to be with your clients, I recommend avoiding religious symbols, though some say they are alright. If you must convey, for example, Christianity, I recommend a cross (not a crucifix).

Staples of Business Casual

The basics for men:

  • A few button-up shirts, preferably long-sleeved and a light neutral color (white, grey, a pale or light blue).
  • Two or more pairs of cotton slacks or trousers. Non-pleated looks more up-to-date. Black, grey, and navy are all great colors. Khaki can look very informal, depending, so be careful with it. Try to get two of each first, then go with your favorite.
  • Conservative shoes, like loafers, in a dark neutral color - brown or black. 
  • A belt, the same or similar color as your shoes.
  • Dark socks. 

Optional, but recommended for men:

  • A suit jacket or blazer in a neutral color (black, dark grey, navy blue).  Navy blue jackets look wonderful with khaki pants, for the record.
  • A necktie. This should be matched to your eyes, your hair, and your jacket color. This is way beyond the scope of this guide, though.

The basics for women:

  • Generally, a dress that follows the same rule as a skirt and a top. More if you like dresses.
  • A couple skirts of knee-length or longer.
  • A few button-up tops, preferably long-sleeved and fitted.
  • A sweater set.
  • Short-heeled or flat shoes. Not open-toed.
  • A pair of nude pantyhose. Though these are rarely worn in most situations, you're better safe than sorry.

Women have so many options that, honestly, my face almost melts off when I think about it. For a start, get yourself a few scarves, a belt for an empire look when and if you wear a dress, and a blazer.

Updated: 11/19/2011, mhoppal
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Fashion Tips and Questions from the Readers

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Holistic_Health on 11/19/2011

My wardrobe could always use some help. Thanks for the tips.

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