Formal. Professional. Casual. Semi-formal. These are all dress code terms we’ve heard time and time again. All of them are relatively easy to define, and it’s usually obvious what occasions are appropriate to dress those ways. Prom. Important business meetings. Class. Elegant dinners out on the town. There’s no guessing as to what should be pulled out of the closet and dresser. For these circumstances, deciding what to wear is as simple as making sure the shoes go with the outfit or choosing what color tie to wear. [pic1]
But one enigmatic dress code description seems to exist simply to throw us into maze of clothing confusion. The ever popular “business casual.” Sure, it’s easy to think of it as one step up from casual and one step down from business professional, but what does that even mean? Tie or no tie? Open or closed toe shoes? Khakis or dress slacks?
We’ve all been in this dilemma of dress. You have to go to some event and you don’t know what to wear. You check the invitation and there it is, written in italics: Business Casual. Questions of polos or blouses and dress shoes or Dr. Martens arise. You need more direction, but you’re left playing a guessing game. After a long and grueling hunt for its definition, it appears ‘business casual’ has its limitations, but it may never be universally and completely understood.[fred ]
For the most part, this vague term is found in the workplace. But even there, sometimes there isn’t a consensus as to what it means. “Every company has a different interpretation,” said Fred Morgeson, a professor in the department of management at MSU. “You have to do research on the company’s values and try to get a sense of what those might be. Some may have specific guidelines.” He explained that some organizations request their workers simply to throw on a clean pair of khaki pants (there are kinds that even repel the ugliest spills) and a wrinkle-free polo. Others define business casual almost to the point of being business professional with mandatory ties, pressed dress pants and absolutely no open-toed shoes.
But how often are we actually given direction from those we want to impress? While the safest route may vary, there are some staples necessary to complete a business casual ensemble. “I think it’s like dress pants and a button down shirt. It’s when you bust out the blazer,” said Erika Greenia, a social relations and comparative cultures and politics senior. She explained that in business casual settings, it’s acceptable to take off a suit jacket, so not wearing one in the first place wouldn’t be detrimental to an outfit.
“The first thing I think of is khaki pants, not a suit, but still professional. You shouldn’t look like a slob,” education masters student Katie Verhaere said. “If there’s one staple article of clothing that seems to fit most arenas of business casual, it’s a pair of khaki pants of near white to dark green or dress slacks in black, gray or brown.”[garcia ]
Figuring out which pair of pants to wear to a business casual function is the easy part though. There are myriad more options when it comes to a shirt. The colors, patterns and styles vary between companies, seasons and people. “Every company has its own culture which includes the dress code,” Morgeson said. He said businesses that encourage creativity are usually more tolerant of an individual’s unique tastes. However, if you’re going into an interview, stay conservative and leave the tube top at home. “You’re trying to get a job, not a date,” he said.
While earth tones may not be on everyone’s favorite color palate, hot pink and neon orange may not be your boss’s preferred combination either. “In fashion or retail industries, bright colors like yellow are fine, but in offices they might be too loud,” said Rose Henderson, a sales associate at women’s clothing store The Limited.
The season may also affect a person’s decision between an orange or gray shirt. While the debate over wearing white after Labor Day is another story in itself, there’s a general understanding that lighter colors are associated with warmer climates. “In the winter there are different shades of gray and a lot of pinstripes,” said Miguel Garcia, a sales associate at The Gap. “In summer, there are yellow and oranges, but for business casual, it has to be something subtle, so you don’t stand out.” But it may be best to toss those guidelines away for an interview. Morgeson recommends wearing a dark suit. “It’s better to be over dressed than under dressed,” he said.
Once you scored the job, what should be laid out the night before the big first day? A button-up blouse would work, but sweaters are also sometimes included in the business casual look. Greenia said that men have a wider selection. “Guys have much more flexibility; they can wear a nice sweater or a short sleeved polo. Women are pretty much limited to with or without a blazer.” On the other hand, Henderson recommended a cardigan and camisole or knit top as alternatives to the basic tailored button-up blouse.[pic2]
But just as you think, “OK, I’ll just pick up five button-up shirts with collars, one for each work day,” don’t be tempted to buy the stylish button-ups that look like they’ve been worn ten times before. Garcia used the wrinkled, white button-up he was wearing as an example of what not to wear to impress your boss. “It’s untucked and meant to look like it hasn’t been ironed,” he said. “It should be pressed and have a crisper look, so it looks like it belongs in an office.”
While the finishing touches to an outfit apply mostly to women, men can still take some hints from shoes, jewelry and hair and make-up advice. Modesty seems to be a theme among all types of accessories. Anything from tennis shoes and flip-flops to stilettos and thigh high boots are probably not what your boss would like to see gracing his or her floor, Morgeson warned. Simple flats or plain shoes that are similar to a loafer work better. And for men, black dress shoes like wing tips are most typical in a business or business casual setting.
It’s also important that jewelry isn’t outshining you. Beyond a set of earrings, some companies are stricter than others when it comes to piercings and tattoos. “If you have the ‘This is what I am and I don’t care what you think’ attitude, you have to understand that some people might not appreciate that, and it could keep you from getting the job,” Morgeson said. Equally distracting are hair, makeup and even perfume and cologne. You aren’t going to the bar at 9 a.m. tomorrow, so it probably isn’t a good idea to go crazy with new eyeliner and a funky new ‘do.
So, while there are still too many distinct definitions to pick just one or combine in any way, business casual can be thought of as something more specific than a happy medium between business professional and casual. When it doubt, it’s better to dress in a fashion closer to professional. And modesty could be the synonym of business casual — an interview is not a blind date. In a way, the business casual look is the one category that is meant to make you blend in and be invisible. It’s not meant to distract people from your work and achievements. “Don’t stand out because of how you look,” Morgeson said. “Stand out because of your capabilities.”

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