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What Is Business Casual Attire?

In the ever-changing landscape of fashion in the workplace, business casual can range from a mixture of blazers and work-appropriate tops to heels and button-downs.

What Does "Business Casual" Really Mean?

The main problem with defining how to dress business casual is the lack of an across-the-board definition. This can become frustrating as more offices adopt a business-casual dress code or even newer dress code variations like "smart casual." However, there are some unspoken rules that apply to most offices.

Business casual is typically defined as no jeans, no shorts, no short dresses or skirts for women, optional ties for men, and a rotation of button-downs or blouses. Business casual dressing is more about avoiding a list of "don'ts" than following a list of "dos" and can vary slightly depending on style, preference, and gender presentation.

What Is Business Casual for Men?

The line between business casual and professional for men typically hinges on tie-or-no-tie. But every office is different, and there can still be a wide general range of what can or cannot count as business casual. As such, there are still some general guidelines that are worth mentioning—from head to toe.

Shirts

For men, stick to a range of long-sleeved button-downs and collared shirts. Typically, collared shirts that are long-sleeved are the most appropriate. Though it may not feel like the most casual option, the lack of tie gives it a more relaxed look than a suit-and-tie combo. 

As a second choice, short-sleeved polos or button-downs may also work for your office in warmer weather, but be sure to observe others and check with HR if you're not sure whether short sleeves make the cut. 

Blazers and Jackets

While not always necessary, throwing on a well-cut blazer or jacket can add an extra professional touch to your run-of-the-mill office ensemble. Your jacket or blazer can be of use if you have an important meeting or presentation and are worried that your button-down shirt by itself makes you look too casual for the occasion. 

It's generally safe to stick to patternless coats in plain colors such as grey, black, and blue. It's a good idea to have a go-to blazer on-hand for formal occasions like job interviews.

Sweaters

The majority of offices allow for sweaters or sweater vests. Chunky knit sweaters may be appropriate during the winter, but in general, stick to fine-knit sweaters that can go over button-downs or shirts, leaving the collar visible for one of the more classic men's business-casual looks.

Nice Pants or Slacks

Some progressive offices allow for jeans, but sticking to dress slacks or chino pants (commonly known as khakis) will ensure you're well within your dress code standards. A pair of khakis can be a particularly versatile tool in a business casual outfit, as they can go well with formal and more casual shirts alike.

While it depends on how adventurous your office is, try to stick to plain or neutral-colored pants like black, grey, tan, or dark-toned colors. Avoid bright-colored bottoms (neon yellow isn't always the most professional, unfortunately). Always include a belt in similarly neutral tones.

Shoes

Loafers or dress shoes are always appropriate. Avoid sandals and sneakers. There aren't too many rules about color, but keep it as professional and polished as possible.

Nearly every department store carries work wear for men. Macy's (M) - Get Macy's, Inc. Report , Hugo Boss (BOSS) - Get Global X Founder-Run Companies ETF Report  and Ralph Lauren (RL) - Get Ralph Lauren Corporation Report are popular for a one-stop-shop experience for business casual.

Men can play it safe with khakis, a button-down shirt, and non-athletic shoes. 

Men can play it safe with khakis, a button-down shirt, and non-athletic shoes. 

What Is Business Casual for Women?

Women's business casual attire can vary greatly depending on location, profession, office style, and time of the year. However, standard business casual for women tends to be a collection of the following staples. 

To-the-Knee Skirts and Dresses

While the length and tightness may vary depending on your particular office, dresses and skirts that reach about knee-length (or below) are always a safe bet when dressing for the job. Avoid skirts and dresses that are too tight, too low, or too dressy. In terms of color, business casual doesn't have too many restrictions.

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Pants

Tailored or wide-leg pants dress pants, chinos, or suit pants are always appropriate. For certain offices, jeans may be worn, but be sure to check your office's dress code policies beforehand. Printed pants or bright colors can sometimes be appropriate, but it can still be helpful to gauge your office's atmosphere beforehand.

Blazers

Standard for both men and women in the office, blazers are a classic professional staple that seems to be a universal element of a good dress code. It is helpful to keep a rotation of black, grey, blue, and other colored blazers in your closet. Bright colored-blazers can be fun, but make sure they are still versatile enough to wear with different outfits.

Blouses and Button-Downs

The particulars of what tops are appropriate depend largely on the individual office dress code (or the individual themselves), but a nicely fitted, flowy, and/or ironed blouse or button-down is always appropriate. Try to keep brand logos to a minimum.

Shoes

Closed-toe heels, flats, or loafers are typically the order of the day when it comes to women's business-casual fashion. While the particulars of the shoe (whether open-toed, stiletto, or other) are left up to the employee or job, it is always safe to choose one of the above (sandals and sneakers are usually frowned upon).

While the options are nearly endless, clothing brands like Ann Taylor (ANN) , Banana Republic (GPS) - Get Gap Inc. (The) Report , and Mango carry most of the staple pieces you'll need for your office wardrobe (think tailored pants, blazers, blouses, and heels).

Women can play it safe with a simple blouse-pant combo and closed-toe shows. Knee-length dresses and skirts are also usually appropriate. 

Women can play it safe with a simple blouse-pant combo and closed-toe shows. Knee-length dresses and skirts are also usually appropriate. 

Are Jeans Business Casual?

The short answer is, well, no. You're probably better off not taking any chances and just wearing khakis or a dressier pant. But given the vast array of jobs, progressive offices, and corporate cultures, even jeans are up for debate.

As a general rule, it is far safer to err on the side of professionalism and go without the jeans. However, many offices do allow for jeans, so it is important to check your company's dress code beforehand. 

If you are lucky enough to have a more casual workplace that allows for jeans, try to stick to dark-wash, tailored jeans. Avoid jeans with rips, holes, prints, and embroidery, and steer clear of light wash.

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Business Casual vs Business Professional: What's the Difference?

A big source of confusion for employees can be the difference between business casual and business professional. Typically, business professional standards for men and women can be summed up in a single word: suits.

For men, business professional includes a suit, a neutral dress shirt, dress shoes, a belt, and a tie (many business professional jobs also require neat and clean grooming). For women, business attire typically consists of either a pantsuit set, a tailored skirt-and-blazer combo, or a knee-length tailored dress. Closed-toed, low heels are typically preferred.

So, while the precise differences between business casual and business professional may be more up to you or your boss's judgment, you typically don't need to don a full-on suit for a business-casual atmosphere.

Business-Casual Cheat Sheet: What's Ok to Wear?

YesDepends on the WorkplaceNo

Khakis, Chinos, and Dress Pants

Leggings

Jeans

Collared Shirts and Blouses

Polos 

Shorts

Sweaters 

Short-Sleeve Button Downs

Tank Tops and Sleveless Shirts

Sweater vests

Flannels

Loud Patterns and Colors

Knee-Length Dresses/Skirts

Certain Types of Open-Toe Shoes

Sandals

Closed-Toe Shoes 

Certain Types of Hats

Tennis Shoes

How to Dress Business Casual

Apart from the occasional "Casual Friday" in the office, the best way to dress business casual is to plan ahead and shop with guidelines in mind. When shopping for your job, try to purchase an easily versatile collection of a few different shirts, pants, skirts or dresses, and shoes.

Dressing business casual isn't rocket science—so many of the particulars are left up to your style and judgment. Generally, maintaining an array of tops and bottoms that you can mix and match plus a couple of pairs of shoes to rotate in and out will keep you looking fresh and professional. 

Still, the key is to remember the main dos and don'ts that are almost always a part of a business-casual office dress code.

Business-Casual Dos and Don'ts

Although these will vary, check out this hit-list of the main do's and don'ts for business casual before the next time you hit up your go-to store.

  • Do: Choose clothes that fit you and make you look professional, such as tailored pants, blazers or jackets, and dresses.
  • Don't: Wear baggy, old, or logo-ridden shirts or pants. Keep your ensemble looking fresh and clean.
  • Do: Buy a few pairs of neutral pants that will work with different shirts. This will save you money and keep your outfits looking office-appropriate.
  • Don't: Wear jeans, sneakers, distracting jewelry, or sandals to the office. These, for the most part, belong in your off-duty repertoire.

The Oxford Dictionary describes business casual as "intended to give a professional and businesslike impression." The main key is just that—to wear something that gives a professional impression to your boss and coworkers. The particulars are largely up to you.

Where Can You Buy Business-Casual Outfits for Cheap? 

As mentioned above, many professionals source their business-casual wear from department stores like Macy's, Anne Taylor, and Banana Republic, but shoppers seeking deals on workwear can also check out discount department stores like Ross, Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and Nordstrom Rack. 

These stores carry the same sort of high-quality, brand-name attire as popular department stores, but their prices are discounted, as their merchandise typically consists of overstock, out-of-season, irregular, and unsold items from other department stores. 

For those seeking a simple but professional look (a la khakis and collared shirt or blouse and low heels), both discount and traditional department stores should have plenty to choose from in-person and online.