The Working Man: Definining Business Casual

by Rachel Yeomans | August 10th, 2011   

By Alan Neff

In the workplace, two words frequently cause confusion and, from time to time, painful embarrassment: “Business Casual.”  It can be awkward to walk into any situation dressed for rugby when everyone else is attired in yacht-club whites for croquet on the lawn.

I actually was the first advocate of business casual in my workplace, when law offices were the last to embrace workplace fashion-flexibility.  I’ve watched our workplace evolve and develop surprisingly detailed rules for Casual Fridays.

Picture 43 The Working Man: Definining Business Casual

Generally speaking, “B-C” means “what your workplace allows you to wear on days (or at business events, such as conferences) when you do not have to wear traditional office clothing (suit, dress-shirt, tie, socks and laced dress-shoes).”

Unfortunately, definition by a negative is not terribly helpful.  You need to fill in the blanks with actual workplace-appropriate clothes.

Besides it’s relatively high OQ (Oxymoron Quotient), “Business Casual” is slippery in definition and perilous in application.  For men, Business Casual can range from: (1) dress-slacks and open necked, long-sleeved dress-shirts, with socks and laced shoes; through (2) blue jeans, golf/polo-shirts/short-sleeved dress shirts, and loafers (with or without socks); further into (3) Hawaiian shirts, jeans or cargo shorts, and sandals; and all the way to (4) bike-messenger chic – mid-calf black-denim cutoffs, black sneakers with low/no socks, and artfully torn tees.

In short, “Business Casual” is endlessly mutable, depending on the values and preferences of management in a given workplace.  Context is everything.

Picture 52 The Working Man: Definining Business Casual

Fortunately, for an entry-level male, deciding how to dress casually for the workplace is not a complicated six-dimensional chess problem.  If you interviewed in the work-place (rather than entirely on-line), and on more than one occasion, you probably have an idea of how your colleagues dress on typical work-days.  If you’re lucky, you interviewed on Business-Business and Business-Casual days.  That would give you a complete picture of dress expectations in your new home-away-from-home.

Initially, wear what you see to be appropriate on both formal and casual days.  If you don’t have a good sense of what’s appropriate on Business-Casual days, begin by erring on the prudent side.  On your first business-casual day, dress as you would on a regular work-day, or wear a blazer over an open-necked dress-shirt and slacks, with socks and laced shoes from your Business-Business wardrobe.  Let your observations and colleagues tell you you can dress more casually the next time around.

Picture 63 The Working Man: Definining Business Casual

Regardless what you wind up wearing on casual days, keep traditional clothes at the office.  You never know when you’ll have to attend a meeting with a client, customer, or colleague who expects you to look entirely traditional and professional.

Next, we’ll talk about the details of a basic “B-C” wardrobe.


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Our office is business casual, and we have a very wide range of suitable outfits.. from polo shirts and running shoes, to dress shirts and jeans, to rolled up sleeves, a tie and slacks. Definitely depends on the individual office environment.